Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don Giovanni at WNO

Late to the party on this one too, but WNO gets retroactive props for the Don Giovanni it presented in its second foray of the season. I know it's a bit unfair to compare Anna Bolena's pretty tunez and reasonably interesting characters with the unending parade of WIN that is Mozart's masterpiece, but let's hope it is this production, and not the prima, that is the harbinger of things to come this year.

WNO offered some exceptional Mozart several years ago, in the Figaro directed by Harry Silverstein*, and this production shares many of that outing's virtues: strong singing, a charismatic ensemble, and direction that gets the human scale and humor of Mozart's comedies just right (for the purposes of this good-feelings review, let's forget the irretrievable lameness of last year's Jonathan Miller Cosi).

Directed by John Pascoe, this Don Giovanni makes a strong case for the Donna Elvira-led interpretation, portrayed here by the great Barbara Frittoli. Mostly clad in a sort of superhero get up comprised of tall boots, trenchcoat, and corset, the production foregrounds the tension between Elvira's clear agency as an individual and her lingering attraction to the Don--a complicated mix of sexual desire, sympathy, self-sabotage, and self-sacrifice. Basically, it's Don Giovanni as proto-Buffy**, though the older work is definitely the darker one. Whereas Buffy's tortured love for her vampires turns on the status of their souls (complicated in the case of Spike by his "mimicry" of a soul due to the chip in his head), Donna Elvira can't be so sure. Mozart and DaPonte's Don never reveals the slightest shred of a soul--he is utterly un-self aware, almost an animal. Elvira's love for him is entirely her own invention, yet the deepest, most heartfelt demonstration of feeling in the entire opera--we are left to to wrestle with the fundamental irrationality of her actions as well as our empathy. A throwaway gag in this production, that Elvira is actually carting around the Don's child, was clever but served as a distraction from this richer point.

Fine portrayal aside, Frittoli's voice is perhaps not what it was in her recent prime. Her first appearance, "Ah, chi mi dice mai," was compelling but not entirely comfortable, though thankfully this seemed to be a warmup question--by the time "Mi Tradi" rolled she was in exquisite control. The strength of the women in the cast continued with Megan Miller's Donna Anna, who brought a lot of excitement to the role's considerable demands. Finally, we had the wonderful Zerlina of Veronica Cangemi, who, despite a bit of a rough start with that brutal entrance, turned in sexy, beguiling renditions of both "Batti, batti and "Vedrai, carino" that were a highlight of the evening (could have done without some excessively vulgar business assigned to Masetto during these numbers). Regarding the men: Ildar Abradzakov delivered just about everything one needs in a Don, from lusty virtuosity in the patter numbers to the requisite bear-croon in the seduction songs. The other standout was tenor Juan Francisco Gatel, offering nuanced, finely crafted versions of "Dalla Sua Pace" and "Mio Tesoro," while driving home Don Ottavio's earnest dullness (Gatel's relatively small size besides Megan Miller's statuesque profile in glamorous evening dresses seemed a fitting look for this pair).

WNO music director Phillipe Auguin was a welcome sight in the pit for this production, and quickly banished thoughts of a somewhat routine overture with a beautifully felt performance that allowed his singers to make the most out of their respective turns.

*Somehow I missed this at the time, but back in the day I was in the children's chorus for a string of operas he directed for DePaul University's music school!

**Sorry, don't fight it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Anna Bolena at WNO

And no, I did not miss Anna Bolena, though it is gone now. For the record, Radvanovsky did not disappoint in arguably the starriest turn of a WNO season resting heavy on its diva cred. Her distinctive sound is always a pleasure in my book, and that built-in sob she has is a natural ally for Donizetti. Unfortunately, the whole thing never managed to catch much fire thanks to a variety of shortcomings that outweighed some not inconsiderable positive qualities.

Perhaps the first mistake was not allowing for some regular cuts in the opera (specifically in the final scene for the tenor, so Downey tells us). Not saying the whole uncut business couldn't be compelling (different strokes and all that), but it would require more dramatic firepower than this cast or production had at its disposal. Radvanovsky, despite her musical virtues, is not always a dynamic stage presence, and coming at the end of a long night, her priddy but static final scene had the audience restlessly casting about for someone to enter with the axe already. When Anna Bolena feels considerably longer than the intermission-less 4.5 hours I spent in Einstein on the Beach the following evening, ur doing it wrong.

Sonia Ganassi, whom we enjoyed quite a bit in Werther last year, was a standout among the rest of the cast, with a flexible, urgent sound that provided a Seymour that was a worthy counterweight to Radvanovsky's Bolena, though the potentially explosive duet scene stopped somewhere in the neighborhood of admirable. Mezzo Claudia Huckle also shone in the trouser role of Smeton, the court musician who pines after Anna.

As far as the men are concerned: I assume I heard Georgian tenor Shalva Mukeria in the role of Percy since there was no B-cast and I don't recall an insert (I saw the 9/21 show), but I'm having a hard time reconciling the general praise elsewhere with what I heard--a respectable but pedestrian voice for most of the evening, certainly a notch below the tenor obtained for Lucia last year, and one which ended up demonstrating significant strain by the time the final prison aria rolled around. Points for Oren Gradus, as Henry, for being the only one onstage who seemed to really throw himself into the staging choices--vocally he was solid throughout but his honey-less tone is a bit of a chore in this music.

But the chief strike against the evening was the production, directed by Stephen Lawless. There were thoughtful elements here--I was down with the balconies of spying courtiers, though not sure if the allusion to the Globe in the set design was clever or just convenient--but on the whole it was fairly hideous. The vast expanses of cheap unfinished looking wood, liberal use of antlers, and wan, unfocused lighting evoked nothing so much as a 5th generation Williamsburg bistro several weeks before opening. Yikes.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Jupiter Quartet at the National Academy of Sciences

After a two year hiatus, the magical auditorium in the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue is presenting concerts again, starting with today's program of Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms from the Jupiter Quartet. The ceiling of the auditorium, a giant shell composed of 240 separate panels which maximize sound distribution (more at the link) makes for an incredible chamber music venue that preserves the warmth and immediacy of the instruments with remarkable clarity throughout the hall. The only problem now is the criminally meager season of concerts available to the public--what the frack do we need to get a piano up there already?

The Jupiter offered a charming romp through the lead-off Mozart (K. 575). This is the kind of playing that makes me reconsider my general apprehension about live Mozart chamber music--simple (or so it seems) and casual, yet utterly seamless, and still controlled and fast enough to maintain a sense of urgency. Especially in the final Allegretto, where the players trade lines in an increasingly intricate sort of game, the Jupiter demonstrated the joys of Mozart played with almost an improvisatory sensibility, never succumbing to that dull heavenly metronome business, which is death. A stunning performance of the Bartok first string quartet followed, a rich, aching Lento followed by a muscular Allegretto, and the whirlwind finale, where we finally get a view of that unmistakable Bartok sound.

The Brahms in the second half (the String Quartet No. 1) was, as usual, something of a letdown. (Maybe its me?) The group seemed to be having trouble getting the balances right to bring out the interplay between voices that gives the piece its structure, and for long stretches we just got a lot of Brahmsian-sounding mush. The Brahms-pummeling tendency was not as strong in the Jupiter as it is in some folks, but it wasn't entirely absent either, and the relentless speed made it hard to tell whether the final impression was enlightenment or just exhaustion. Points for beautiful work in the Poco Adagio movement, though.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Shadows and Prog

If you haven't already, you really ought to read Dave Weigel's 5 part rumination on the movement that was progressive rock in Slate. Besides many fun anecdotes about the genre's crimes of absurdity, the story Weigel tells about prog's ultimate rejection and marginalization seems useful for our purposes here. Prog was, after all, the great attempt to use the materials of rock in the service of music with "classical" ambitions--a rejection of the 3 minute pop song in favor of composed, large-scale formats, greater rhythmic and melodic complexity, and subject matter that delved into abstract and spiritual concerns. Moreover, prog often explicitly aligned itself with the classical tradition--Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's debut LP includes substantial material from Bartok, Janacek, and Bach. In the 1970s, these references weren't so foreign to British (and American?) teenagers and 20-somethings.

Weigel lays some blame for prog's mainstream demise at the feet of prog itself, for tempting self-satire as bands sought to outdo themselves in weirdness and inaccessibility, and some more at the homogenizing tendencies of the music business, which eventually realized it didn't want to be in the business of providing FM real estate to the occasional half hour transcendental opus. But he also points to the viciousness with which rock tastemakers turned on the genre in favor of the primitive sounds of punk. Punk's own merits aside, prog seems like a clear victim of a pop chauvinism which classical enthusiasts are sure to recognize.

Now before anyone gets upset, let me emphasize that I'm not trying to get into some old pop vs. classical nonsense, and anyhow, no one beats the last several hundred years of the Western classical music establishment in the chauvinism department. But rock music does have a peculiar self-limiting hangup here, and one that seems cruelly at odds with both the natural maturation of artists' ambitions to try bigger, more challenging things, and audiences' interests in being challenged themselves. Let's just say there's a reason the "rock opera" stubbornly abides as an aspiration, no matter how the forces of cynicism and coolness may disparage it...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Debating "indie-classical"

If you haven't seen it already, Maura Lafferty and Nico Muhly are having a nice civilized exchange about the utility, justice, etc. of the term "indie-classical." Nico's response (here, to Maura's defense here) focuses on what is lost in reducing art to facile categories, and touches on the deleterious effects this can have on composers tempted to internalize their assigned genres.

Towards the end, he seems to hint that this state of affairs may be more or less necessary, and good thing we have professionals who are interested in doing it. Boundaries are important, of course: civilized people in adult conversations should clearly avoid talking to each other like walking press releases (unless you're in DC where that just means you have your shit together). But marketing doesn't deal with individuals, it deals with People. And People, unlike individuals, respond to, if not the lowest, then certainly a lower common denominator. Figuring out how to artfully play to that in a way that gets the message to people you want to be reaching is just a fact of trying to spread things to any audience that numbers in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But that bigger debate really goes beyond the narrower question of what rankles about "indie-classical," i.e. the term is not about describing how a certain type of music sounds, but about situating a product within a matrix of Stuff White People Like. Maura makes a case for indie-classical as a way to align new music with the same aesthetic of authenticity and anti-corporatism that drives our insatiable desire for, among other things, heirloom tomatoes and stuff on Etsy. And while there is certainly an appealing logic to this, is new music really going to find a home as aural wallpaper for discriminating hipsters? It seems like you might move a few CDs at the unwitting margin with this strategy but you're not likely to generate the kind of loyal fan base that keeps coming back because they actually like the stuff.

So yeah, "indie classical" sucks, but not because it is a crime to engage in some expedient oversimplification for PR purposes. Nico's own fleeting attempt at this in his response--to paraphrase, "Elizabethan choral  goes minimalist"--might sound a bit cheap relative to what he actually works on, but hey, you obviously want to ensure that anyone intrigued by that phrase is getting marketed to real hard, right? No, "indie-classical" sucks because it is a copout, a lifestyle marketing term when what we need is a way to describe the actual music in a way that a receptive audience gets the message.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What is even up with Peter Gelb right now

Erg...I have been out of the loop for the past 48 hrs and missed the boat something fierce on this hasty, misguided business and its equally swift retraction. I like Brian's commentary at Out West Arts here--its a bit dramatic to call Gelb's move "censorship" given Opera News' symbiotic relationship with the Met. The bright lines around conflict and censorship expected of criticism in a regular news outlet don't quite apply.

No, this misfire isn't about crushing one's right to voice one's dissent about the Machine's shenanigans; its indicative of a more insidious trend: the ever-growing dominance of PR logic and its friction with the tacit agreement that more honest dialogue about the arts can only be in the best interest of better art and, especially, better consumers of art. Something like opera criticism exists in print not so much by virtue of its irresistible business model, but, as in the case of Opera News, because opera enthusiasts, critics, and institutional interests have made a space for it where space could be found, and because they believe criticism is a necessary part of the broader artistic enterprise.

But that kind of space doesn't fit very well into the PR paradigm of the world, where message discipline is the paramount concern, and contrary, unpleasant voices are only OK insofar as they are nonthreatening--otherwise, they are risks to be mitigated. This may be a bothersome trend in politics or business, though clearly we don't have much choice in the matter anymore. It sure would be nice, though, if we could keep the hackery to a dull roar in our more genteel pursuits.

Update: Lisa has been all over this, of course, and has a good list of links to coverage...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Samson at WCO

And for the final leg of the weekend, we had Washington Concert Opera's spring show: a Samson et Dalila featuring Frank Poretta (a last minute replacement for the originally scheduled Brandon Jovanovich), Michelle DeYoung, and Greer Grimsley.

Poretta was seen recently in Washington, as Cavaradossi in the generally competent run of Tosca's that opened the WNO season, for which he received a somewhat lukewarm reception, though I liked him quite a bit. I want to call him a meat n' potatoes tenor, but in a good way. His basic sound is sturdy and muscular, and he doesn't go in for a lot of polish that would fuss it up. Sure he'll try a fancy pianissimo effect here and there where called for but it usually doesn't work out. Sometimes he goes through a bit of a gruff period and you just have to wait it out. But he almost never fails to make the big thrilling sound where it counts, and it is all the more thrilling for sounding like it is connected to a real human being. Those qualities make him a great fit for Samson, which benefits from tenors that sound like they're bolted to the floor (see also my last Samson, the granite-voiced Clifton Forbis in 2006--is he out at the Met now? What happened to him?). Especially given the minimal preparation time he surely had (and you could tell there was some Olympic-quality sight reading going on in the longeurs of Act I) this was a fine contribution.

Michelle DeYoung, also seen recently as Judith in the Eschenbach/Goerne Bluebeard's Castle from earlier this year, was the other original attraction for the program, after the absent Jovanovich. Looking the part rather spectacularly in a turquoise satin number with purple silk accent sleeves/sashes, she spun a glamorous and sensual Dalila with a rich plummy tone just hinted at in her Judith. "Ma Coeur..." a favorite from my primordial days of opera appreciation, can handle a bit more rawness and urgency onstage, but one would have a hard time beating DeYoung for sheer beauty and decadent, over-ripe texture.

Greer Grimsley, whom we have not heard  before, offered a high priest that can only be described as dastardly. This is a unique instrument: a bass baritone of great black depths and unwavering power and consistency. I very much want to hear his Wotan now (especially to cleanse the palate after all of Terfel's shouty faux heftiness), though with the deep impression he made here I fear I may never shake the vision of him as mustache-twirling villain. Kind of like how once Michael Madsen cuts that dude's ear off in Reservoir Dogs you never again believe him as, say, the "dad" character.

There is definitely a lot of chorus in Samson, though it has never registered as particularly interesting as opera choral music goes. That aside, the WCO's chorus did a fine job capturing the varied colors of the anguished Hebrews and the carefree Dagon worshippers. Maestro Antony Walker did his usual superhuman conducting duties at the podium, keeping the whole machine in check, bringing together some memorable climaxes, and, especially in the case of the third Act ballet, driving the band to feverish heights almost through sheer force of will alone. Rough edges here and there marred the overall success only somewhat, including spotty solo work and instances where Saint-Saens' orchestral colors came off middling and thin.

Update: Here are Downey and Midgette.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Werther at WNO

WNO kicked off its last production of the season Saturday night with an elegant and musically distinguished Werther. We heard the opera live for the first time last year in Washington Concert Opera's winning concert presentation, featuring a triumphant Giuseppe Filianoti. That was something of an eye opener for me--I have always found Manon a bit stilted and in danger of coming off like a pedantic 19th century after-school special, by contrast Werther is an emotionally intimate work with great moral ambiguity and sympathy at its core.

For this production, WNO is offering a major league Werther in Genoese tenor Francesco Meli. Contrary to his bio (time for an update, dude) he is NOT appearing in the new Vegas themed Rigoletto at the Met next year but IS indeed going to be in the DiDonato Maria Stuarda (his Met debut was in the 2010 Rigoletto run). His is a great, unapologetic chunk of voice, most easily at home in a booming forte but shot through with enough ping to make everything go down smoothly if not always with a great deal of finesse. There is some other baggage--Acts I & II suffered from a lot of unnecessary swooping for effect and a congenital habit of staying just behind the beat. I think this was supposed to be Werther's "sad voice" but it was mostly just tiresome, and he thankfully cooled it a bit as the evening went on. Like his compatriot Filianoti, he also has a penchant for the big stage gesture i.e. throwing himself at regular intervals onto benches, door frames, the floor. I don't mind this sort of thing so much, but it did inspire some inappropriate titters from the audience (stage direction which had him way too mobile during the death scene did not help matters).

Sonia Ganassi contributed a passionate Charlotte--her exquisite, cool focused tone an excellent fit for an Act III monologue that tended to bring out Charlotte's great pity for Werther. Andrew Foster Williams offered a robust, menacing Albert, with an ample, ramrod baritone. Emily Albrink offered a solid if not terribly distinctive Sophie.

The production, originally from Opera Australia, is lightly updated to circa a drab, conformist small town 1950s 1920s. Presenting the town and its characters with more familiar cues is a particularly effective choice. Werther's tragedy is about more than one misguided soul, he is also a casualty of the bourgeois society that can't abide his transgression in loving Charlotte and his alienating depression. Charlotte refuses him not only out of duty, but out of fear of sharing his fate, embodied in Albert's threatening presence. Acts I and II share a versatile set which suggests both exterior and interior, beautifully registering the change in season. The Act III and IV sets turn inward and lose the openness of the first half, first in the oppressive white living and dining room of Charlotte's house, a reflection of her empty marriage to Albert, and then in the dirty flat where Werther takes his life.

Emmanual Villaume led a warm, masterful account of the score in the pit, carefully shading his tempi to bring out emotional nuance while never letting things sag. That said, he seemed to pull some punches on a few of the climaxes where one might prefer more go-for-broke milking.

Update: And here are reviews from Downey and Midgette.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Elektra in Philadelphia

Surely one of our more pressing problems is how to get enough Elektra. It is a work of such knotty awesomeness that it strains the ability of our sad little earholes to take it all in, and dropping the orchestra in a pit doesn't help matters either. So concert-version Elektras, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra presented Thursday, are to be encouraged.

From the first Agamemnon theme, erupting on a vast, almost shocking scale (would that the Kimmel Center had one of those candid cams they have on rollercoasters to capture the looks of recognition and a bit of fear that spread through the audience) it was clear we were in for a symphonic throttling of the highest order. Charles Dutoit guided the orchestra through a performance intent on sacrificing nothing of the score's brilliance and majesty to the usual compromises of the theater, rendering its dense thickets of detail with astonishing clarity. Overlooked passages like the black, febrile texture that rumbles through the strings after Elektra initially learns about Orest's death emerged as deeply engrossing, while the big showpiece sections, especially the recognition scene and the finale, simply overwhelmed with waves of rich, yet ever transparent sound. If there was a certain savagery absent that one might look for in the theater, well that wasn't really the point of the evening.

The band was supported by an exemplary cast, led by Dane Eva Johansson, seen behoodied in a Zurich Elektra below (if only she would get rid of that hoodie maybe they wouldn't make her sleep in the yard). Johansson suggested a particularly coarse Elektra devoid of any glamour or self-pity, one I would be interested in seeing fully realized on stage. Her chief claim to the part is surely her ability to conjure the requisite blazing high notes with an unimpeachable purity and little (apparent) effort. While that made for many a thrilling climax, beneath the stratosphere she can revert to a somewhat dull, "thin" sound. I'm not asking for a conventionally gorgeous Elektra mind you, but the lack of throbbing heft places some limitations on some crucial sections, including the "I wuz pretty" monologue and the dirty bit with her sister. Yet Johansson is a fine enough actress that these sections were riveting nonetheless.

Melanie Deiner offered a harried, sweetly feminine Chrysothemis, a fine contrast to Johansson's bulldog of an Elektra, with sumptuous blooming tone during the big duets. The final prong of the triumvirate, Jane Henschel, was a special treat as Klytamnestra, mixing a lush sound with a bone chilling lower register, and a go-for-broke manic laugh at the end of her scene.

Two technical fouls bear mentioning. The subtitles arranged for this performance suffered from terrible timing issues throughout the night, at one point becoming so bad that Elektra and her mom were engaged in a a very dark subtitle version of the "Singin' in the Rain" gag. Also, the most-thankless-choral-part in opera part, the "Orest!" chorus, was piped in via very noisy and crude amplification. Clearly, space was at a premium in the Kimmel Center, but this was a major intrusion on the glorious sound produced by the orchestra.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

I happen to have Julie Taymor right here...

From Gualtier Malde in comments at Parterre, reporting on the Wagner's Dream premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival:
A big moment came when an audience member compared the Mets trials with the problems Julie Taymor went through in “Spiderman”. A woman stood up in the audience and said “Excuse me but I am Julie Taymor”. Taymor then denied that Spiderman cost 75 million (just a measly 35 mil) and praised Gelb for giving directors full rein. Met subscribers might wish otherwise. She then said she loved the film though she suffered with Lepage and all the performers and crew since she has experience the same trials and tribulations.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Giovetti Affair

This business is obviously ridiculous, but also kind of endearing. Gelb's feelings are hurt by a friggin' blog post criticizing him and his $16M production? Clearly the adage about all publicity being good publicity is not true in all walks of life (see Ann Romney, multiple Cadillacs of), but for opera companies? WOULD that the Met produced and relentlessly hyped a turkey of a Janacek opera that everyone got up in arms about. Poor dude could finally sell out the house for once.

I think this Ring is bad production-wise, as I have described here in detail, but bad in interesting ways! I'll regret this if its still my only NY ring option in 20 years, but until then, I think some of us would do well to count this as a learning experience and others would do well to count the mountains of physical and HD tix we've sold for it.

Nabucco at WNO

Washington audiences got a glimpse of a rare creature last Saturday night, a new WNO production, and of a local rarity, Verdi's Nabucco. Plot-wise, it's your usual "blockbuster" formula of warring historical factions (here Jews vs. Babylonians) and  political and romantic intrigue among the principles. While the supporting cast is poorly developed, the two protagonists provide some legitimate interest--the king Nabucco, who is both going mad AND seeking redemption for wanting to annhilate the Hebrews, and his faux daughter Abigaille, actually a slave, who takes advantage of the deteriorating King in a ruthless power grab. Unfortunately the plot they inhabit is a pale shadow of the intricate development found in Verdi's later historical masterpieces, and these interesting leads spend most of the balance of the play, as Downey puts it, unable to "decide whether they are villains or not."

In terms of musical interest, Abigaille towers over the rest of the cast. Verdi has written a fiery showcase of warrior princess music for this character that favors only a very small slice of sopranos willing to nut up and take it on. That Maria Guleghina has the part on virtual lockdown at the Met really says it all. To WNO's great credit, they have staffed the part here with the Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross, who serves up more thrilling, paint-peeling sound than the casts of several other offerings this season put together. One could quibble with some things--her attempts at the occasional but brutal lower register demands of the role sound a bit like me trying to sing Bass II, and she does not impress much in the slower, softer business (though that first aria is pretty pedestrian to begin with, if you ask me)--but she is without a doubt one of the attractions of the current season and almost singlehandedly brings to this Nabucco the vocal glamour and spark it needs.

Franco Vassallo's Nabucco got off to a rocky start, with a somewhat unstable, wooly sound, but he seemed to settle as the evening wore on and delivered a moving, finely phrased "Dio de Giuda!" in the fourth Act, and an effective finale. Everyone's favorite Narraboth of 2010(?), Sean Pannikar, turned up in the somewhat thankless role of Ismaele, love interest of Abigaille's sister "Fenena" and of Abigaille for like five seconds, (I was unclear whether he was dead or not for a while during Act 4). While losing some finesse points here and there, his ringing, honeyed sound continues to make a big impression.

Great to have Auguin in the pit again, as always. He presides over a lively reading and mostly keeps a firm hand on coordination as he drives the big ensemble scenes with rollicking tempi.

As to the production (um, if you care about that sort of thing in an opera production, SPOILERS AHEAD): Thaddeus Strassberger, who helmed the interesting WNO Hamlet of a few years back, returns for this Nabucco in a production essentially organized around "Va Pensiero"'s history as Italian revolutionary anthem. The central conceit is a show within a show--Nabucco presented as it might have been seen on the stage of La Scala in the 1840s, replete with period kitsch, proscenium boxes of Austrian-affiliated nobility, and pre-Act military displays. The spectacular kitsch of the actual production is generally very well done, with intricately painted sets, lavish colorful costumes, and miles and miles of beards.

And then, in the third Act, centered around Va Pensiero and Zaccaria's exhortation to the Hebrews, we get the money gesture--the proscenium we have been watching all evening so far is turned around, and we are looking out at the house as from backstage, where a revolutionary tableaux including seamstresses sewing the tricolore, intellectuals, etc. takes part in the great chorus. The sleight of hand is beautifully done, to be sure--the audience is struck by the feeling of being drawn out of the artifice of the play we've been watching and thrust into the intimacy of contemporary characters with contemporary aspirations. What had been perhaps a passing sense of the social and historical import of this music (remarkably sung by the WNO chorus one must add) is made real and powerful; the multiple layers of emotional resonance contained in the piece are stunningly illustrated in a way only really possible by using the performance itself.

So why did it ultimately ring false?

For one, the gesture is too small. This production would basically see the whole opera through the lens of one element cherry-picked later more as a piece of pop culture than for any interest in the original piece. A valid idea in and of itself, but what are we to make of the other 95 percent of the work? Against the deeper resonance of Va Pensiero, is the rest just an empty show for the Austrian 1 percent? Directors taking significant liberties with a piece in order to plumb a broader swath of significance have something of a responsibility to at least attempt to "use all the parts," and one could imagine a richer production on this same theme that understands the entire work through the lens of 19th century revolution. Strassberger's production sheds a bit of light on this path but opts instead for a "just the tip" strategy that shortchanges a lot of the evening.

For another, there are some uncomfortable gimmicks attached to the Va Pensiero concept that border on the cheap. See below for a clip from a Nabucco production Riccardo Muti led in Rome last year. After a rapturous reception, Muti turns and says something or other to the audience about Italian culture in danger, and then leads an encore sing along with the audience. Italian politics kind of makes my brain melt, but clearly, that country has been going through some shit, and the audience and Muti had something of a sad, cathartic moment here. Its hard to imagine that Strassberger, if not keying off this (who knows when the production was actually designed) could fail to recognize this as a clear parallel with his production. At WNO, clueless American audiences are treated to an enforced bis of the chorus in Act III, and then a calculated surprise sing along encore Va Pensiero during the curtain call (after the soprano has summarily rejected some flowers thrown from the box of one of the faux aristocrats). Rather than shed light on Nabucco or critically engage the audience, these stunts register as an appeal to baser audience desires for some kind of participation or spontaneous feeling, no matter how contrived.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vec Makropulos at the Met

Karita Mattila made her long-awaited Met appearance Friday night as Emilia Marty, the 337 year old protagonist of Janacek's penultimate opera, and the powerful logic of Mattila in this role was again clear to all. Mind you, that's not to say that Mattila's interpretation is the obvious one or likely to bear much similarity to other readings of the part. In fact, her Marty may be a bit of an acquired taste. As is her wont, she eschews traditional operatic acting in favor of a sort of hypernaturalistic style through which she seeks to convey the raw flesh and blood concerns of her characters.

And so in her Marty we do not get the supernatural ice queen hovering above petty human concerns, but a personality disintegrating before our very eyes, a jumble of impulses and memories, a human vessel collapsing under the weight of its own experience. Marty's line "I haven't been a lady for quite some time" is almost a pathetic statement here--peel back the layers of history and this Marty turns out to be a sad, bewildered creature suffering through life without any of the wisdom she may have once acquired. In the absence of the understanding death imparts to our lives, her capacity to make sense of the world has disintegrated and left her horribly adrift. Mattila's special capabilities as a physical performer powerfully telegraph this restless, thoroughly alien presence, while her vocal performance captures Marty's schizophrenic careening from casual cruelty and vulgarity to kittenish seduction, to the weary, soaring lines of the final scene, the finale an exquisite fit for Mattila's plaintive upper register.

That said, this was perhaps not as straightforward a triumph as last year’s assumption in San Francisco. Mattila sounded less comfortable vocally here than she did in the previous outing, with those beautiful blooming lines marred by an occasional wavering about the pitch and a middle register that was sometimes strained early in the night. The biggest damper, however, was undoubtedly the cluttered, unfocused production which is badly showing its age more than 15 years later.

The actual staging, for which the original director, Elijah Moshinsky, returned, was solid enough, with Mattila largely importing the role as she developed it in San Francisco as the centerpiece, but the production is something of a mess. I can see how this probably seemed like an admirably minimal fit for the show in 1996, but today it feels played out. A huge billboard of a mysterious woman's face lurks in the back of the largely bare stage throughout the show to convey, I dunno, that Marty is watching us? The interiors of the office and hotel room for the first and third acts are awkward spaces dominated by massive slanted plate glass windows and lit in a wan, shadowy fashion that plops them into that uncanny valley of set design where, without any greater purpose, one can never quite reconcile the poor attempt at simulating a real space.

The huge sphinx thing which dominates act II (apparently this time around La Marty is engaged for a run of Aida's, as opposed to the memorable clown get-up from SF which had her in Pagiliacci?) was designed, so I'm told, so that Jessye Norman would have a good spot to park herself for the duration, and it adds an intriguing, creepy character despite forcing some awkward staging. There is a big effect at the end that works pretty well, but at the cost of forcing KM to perform the bulk of the great climactic finale shunted to the front of the proscenium for no apparent reason. Getting the full payoff from Vec Makropulos depends a lot on properly showcasing Janacek's glorious finale--directors must tread carefully with anything that detracts from it, and this production fails to obey that rule.

A strong supporting cast included Richard Leech as an agitated, explosive Gregor, the dissolute hopeful in the estate case whose passion for Marty is particularly problematic given that he is her great grandson. Also notable were the intimidating Prus offered by John Reuter and a Kristina of disarming seriousness from Emalie Savoy.

Jiri Belohlavek continues his dominance of big-time American Janacek revivals in the pit with this production. This is a severely unsentimental reading of this fairly unsentimental opera--Belohlavek supports the talkiness of the score with a raw, choppy energy, driving Janacek's dense textures with abandon.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Death of...Photofinishing

Via Brad Plumer, the top ten "dying" industries in the United States by decline in revenue, industry participants, forecast decline in revenue, and some other stuff (original report here):

  1. Photofinishing
  2. Newspaper publishing
  3. Appliance repair
  4. DVD, game, and video rental
  5. Money market and other banking
  6. Recordable media manufacturing
  7. Hardware manufacturing
  8. Shoe and footwear manufacturing
  9. Costume and team uniform manufacturing
  10. Women’s and girls’ apparel manufacturing

Each of these industries is caught in the maw of some particularly brutal bit of capitalist logic, whether displacement by superior technology (photofinishing, video rental, recordable media manufacturing), shifting production to a cheaper country (apparel manufacturing), or displacement by a better business model (appliance repair). Firms in these sectors don't (or shouldn't) have many illusions about where they go from here--either come up with a different way to use your capital and labor stock to produce something not vulnerable to the trend, pray for some kind of extra-market protection from the government, or...start looking for employment elsewhere.

Now, I doubt they have a category for "classical music performance"--and if they do and its actually no. 13 on the list, then I'll eat this post--but I suspect not. The takeaway here is simply that death of classical music handwringers taken to scolding folks for having their heads in the sand might want to consider the fact that the "classical music" sector doesn't line up very neatly with the cut and dry cases above. Issues such as changing generational tastes and shifting donor composition are no doubt critical and deserve to be at the center of continuing dialogue. But jumping to the conclusion that an industry needs to "make a different widget or look for new jobs" is not something one approaches lightly, obviously. And it seems awfully difficult to make the case that an emerging trend like "middle aged concert goers may not be showing up for classical music at the rate of the previous generation" should warrant the same instant conclusions for classical music that a trend like "all of your customers now have a box in their house that does exactly what your store did but cheaper" warrants for Blockbuster.

So why do some people insist we act otherwise? What good is supposed to come of that?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rachel Barton Pine at Wolf Trap

And for the finale to last week's concert mini-marathon, we saw violinist Rachel Barton Pine at Wolf Trap, with Matthew Hagle on keys, in a program of sonatas of Mendelssohn, Villa Lobos, Strauss, and a relatively new work for solo violin by the composer Mohammed Fairouz.

Pine (random disclosure: we went to the same church in Chicago growing up) can be a nearly overwhelming performer, but is also capable of great restraint and good taste as needed. Hence the contrast of the program's first half. The hugely appealing Mendelssohn Sonata in F Major was light-filled and unfolded with a disarming casualness--one only missed some comparable lightness in the piano, which seemed a bit heavy at times with coordination suffering in a few of the nimbler passages. The piece which followed, the Villa Lobos Sonata No. 3, might have arrived from another planet. Pine made a persuasive case for the sonata: digging deep for the anguished, meandering line of the first movement, always on the edge of a nearly unbearable tension; finding a skittery energy in the dark humor of second; and utterly captivating in the driven, extravagant, ultimately exhausted third. Heger was a formidable partner here, contributing some simply explosive playing in the finale.

After the half (and some nice banter with the artists that is apparently a feature of this series) we heard a relatively new sonata for solo violin by the composer Mohammed Fairouz, a commission written for Pine. This is the first I have heard of Fairouz (not that that counts for much), but he boasts an prolific and varied output, including an opera performed at Zankel Hall earlier this month. The Sonata, for its part, is a hugely rewarding work, and well tailored to Pine's talents. The slow movements, including the standout 3rd, dedicated to the uprising in Egypt, and moving 5th, conceived as a lullaby to Pine's new daughter, demonstrated a great talent for lines of unexpected but exceptional beauty. A second movement, incorporating fragments of Arabic melody, had some moments of thrilling virtuosity but was perhaps the least distinctive of the set.

The last work was Richard Strauss' Sonata in E flat. As with a lot of old-skool Strauss, it has a skillful decadence, but a sense of late romantic bloat casts a bit of a shadow over the whole thing. Pine and Heger offered an admirable account though, with lots of opportunities to revel in her sumptuous tone, and a barnstorming finale.

For encores, Pine demonstrated her considerable talents in non-classical genres, with a sort of virtuouso metal/blues rendition of, um, "Sweet Home Chicago" and a hushed, languorous "Summertime."

Pine played the Castleton festival Sunday as well, subbing a Piazzolla piece for the Fairouz sonata, though it doesn't look like there was any coverage of either given the serious competition for critic ears over the weekend. DC gets another chance in January when she'll be at the Phillips collection playing a program of Pagannini's caprices.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Quatour Diotima at the French Embassy

Quatour Diotima presented the contemporary side of their Washington double bill at the French embassy Thursday night (the "hits" side took place at the LoC last night, though I was not in attendance). The evening featured very recent works by Oscar Bianchi, Ramon Lazkano, and Ana Lara, capped by Ligeti's second string quartet.

The Bianchi and Lazkano works which comprised the first half had much in common--use of microtones, raspy harmonics produced by playing near the bridge of the instruments and high up on the strings, and, oh, just about any other sound effect a hollow wood box strung with steel can produce. I won't claim I could pick them out of a lineup on a second hearing, but the Bianchi seemed the more compelling at the time, providing a structure which allowed one clearer insight into the formal program. The Lazkano was deliberately less structured, seeking to describe, in the composer's words "...a flat and plane map surface, a motionless time, fluid and stagnant routes and transitions associted with eroded, crumbly and unsteady sounds..." Fair enough.

If I sound a bit standoffish, its because I find works like this highlight what seems to be a particularly troubled thrust in contemporary music: these are not works of music so much as they are aural conceptual art pieces. They appeal almost exclusively to the listener's analytic faculties, and not at all to the visceral responses (in all their ecstatic and subtle forms) which constitute our experience of music as commonly understood. And yet, unlike the art movement with which they align, they are limited in both their mode of presentation and materials by the fairly narrow parameters of the inherited tradition of western classical music. It begs the question, what profit is there in this line of composition? Does the musical frontier really lie in the abuse of instruments thought up in the 16th century to produce something which, more than anything, evokes the common horror movie soundtrack?

The Lara work which opened the second half largely played on the same harmonics textures, though to greater musical effect. A meditation on friends that have died, the piece opens with sonic chaos resolving to a throbbing drone, punctuated here and there by piercing overtones.

And then we had the Ligeti second string quartet, composed more than 40 years prior. Here we got clear, powerful gestures: the study of different tempi in pizzicati, the variation in timbre on the same pitch, akin, the quartet suggested, to painting black on black. Without the diminishing returns of the more recent works, Ligeti seemed to cover many of their most important points, leaving one somewhat skeptical about where this branch of the musical avant garde goes from here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Antonacci Sings Faure, Hahn, Respighi at the Kennedy Center

I must admit that I was only dimly aware of Anna Caterina Antonacci prior to her current "Best Kept European America" tour, which, following a deliriously praised show at Alice Tully over the weekend, culminated in a stop at the Kennedy Center last night presented by Vocal Arts DC.

The hype is to be believed.

A series of French songs by Faure and Hahn opened the program, providing a showcase for her rather unique sound. Its appeal is partly a function of a remarkable consistency throughout her range, but also its variable character--a cutting, at times bitter edge alternates with moments of gentle sweetness. While elegantly sung and a pleasure to hear, by the eighth or ninth outing, these were verging on the nondescript.

And so I found myself quite unprepared for the revelation that took hold upon the program's transition to the more character driven Italian songs that filled out the remainder of the program.

Starting with a series of wry, picturesque Hahn songs about Venice and moving through highlights including Respighi's Cinque canti all'antica and Tosti's Quatro canzoni d'Amaranta, Antonacci demonstrated a nearly preternatural communicative ability. Every line she sings, even in material largely unknown (to me at least) and sometimes decidedly marginal, comes alive with an irresistible intensity and purpose. Truly, she possesses that most precious of qualities in a singer--to have voice follow text, rather than the other way around.

Encores were topped off with a disarmingly earnest rendition of "Moon River" (which I note was not given in New York--DC, you have a reputation).

Her collaborator, Donald Sulzen, proved an ideal partner for her gifts. The sensitivity and nuance with which he followed Antonacci's subtle shadings of tempo and character (seriously people, like Avatar-style) allowed him to manage that ever challenging balance of making a robust impression in the piano while appearing effortlessly complementary to the singer.

See more: the Ionarts review, Tommassini's rave from last Sunday that all the olds in my elevator were talking about, Zachary Woolfe's preview, a delightful old school Parterre page that is still apparently her top hit on Google.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Washington Bach Consort plays the Art of the Fugue

Washington Bach Consort provided a rather unique opportunity to hear the entirety of the Art of the Fugue in concert Sunday afternoon--one that was not forsaken by Washington Bach lovers, who sold out the house.
The Art of the Fugue, great summit of achievement in contrapuntal writing, timeless enigma of Western art, purest expression of music's foundational genius (see the apt, if oft-disputed epigram found on the cover of the 1746 manuscript of Contrapunctuses 1-4 : "Wie gefällt dir mir jetzt?"*)...can be a bit problematic in performance. The probability that the average human brain is processing all that dense counterpoint, on roughly the same theme, in the same key, in any sort of pleasurable or enlightening manner, rapidly approaches zero as the contrapunctuses march on. So one needs to find ways to keep it fresh, and the varied configurations the Bach Consort brought to bear Sunday--including solo organ, two harpsichords, and a period string quartet of violin, tenor and treble viol, and violone--provided enough variety that one happily never succumbed to the dreaded fugue overdose.
That said, there is surely a case to be made that period strings are not an imperative when dealing with the Art of the Fugue. No doubt the quartet produced an appealing sound, especially where organ doubled certain parts to bring out the fugue themes, and Andrew Fouts (Bach Consort's concertmaster) had some of the most exhilarating playing of the afternoon in parts that lend themselves especially well to the violin, such as the syncopated melody of Contrapunctus II. But the violin just seemed to highlight how often the counterpoint ended up muddled in the bottom three strings, both on account of the imprecision in performance that tends to crop up with these instruments and the fuzzier textures they produce. It's hard to listen to something like the Emerson Quartet performance below and not suspect something is missed about this work when precision is sacrificed.
No such complaints about the use of harpsichord though (the two onstage were played here by Bach Consort leader J. Reilly Lewis and Scott Detra). I'm all for Bach on the piano, but listening to the Aimard recording as I write this, I am reminded that piano in this work specifically is perhaps one layer of information too much. The dynamic choices seem falser than they do elsewhere, more futile, and the whole magnificent edifice sort of degenerates into sounding new agey music. The austerity of the harpsichord, on the other hand, keeps us riveted to the score without distraction.
*i.e. "How you like me now?"

NSO plays Dvorak, Janacek

Took in the NSO's Prague/Budapest/Vienna "off-night" show Friday, mainly for the welcome opportunity to hear two Janacek chamber works--the "Concertino" for piano-left hand, strings, clarinet, horn and bassoon, and the "Capriccio," also for piano left-hand and a variety of brass and wind instruments, minus the strings. These pieces hail from the heart of his mature period (1926 and 1925 respectively) but meander much further than the familiar sound of the first string quartet or the operas of the early 20s. Both use the building blocks of the folk songs that inspire so much of Janacek's work, but they are largely unrecognizable in the more abstract setting of these works.
This is really a fascinating side of Janacek, and it was a great chance to hear them live--but overall the performance didn't quite come together for me. No doubt greater familiarity would make for a more rewarding experience, but at the same time the NSO players and pianist Lukas Vondracek (and assistant conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl who led the Capriccio) seemed to miss some of the playful propulsive energy and mercurial texture so key to the appeal of these works. Both seemed frequently trapped in a plodding tempo, while Vondracek's work at the piano often felt heavy-handed and too deliberate.
The bookends for the Janacek were two Dvorak Serenades conducted by Eschenbach. The first, for winds in D minor (Op.44), was charming, with standout work done by the main quartet of oboes and clarinets. The familiar Serenade for Strings in E major (Op. 22) constituted the entire second half and, despite being the "greatest hit" on the program, generated some real interest thanks to Eschenbach's sensitive but not overly sentimental reading, and the NSO strings' great responsiveness to his ideas. The piece was only somewhat marred by a strident, uneven tone here and there and a few rough edges on some of the more exposed passages.
Here's Downey's take.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

NSO All Bartok Show (Belated)

Just a quick belated comment on my first encounter with the NSO side of the "Music of Prague/Budapest/Vienna" festival at the Kennedy Center the other week (in my defense, I'm participating in the chorus for this weekend's offering, the Dvorak Stabat night left!) Though terribly bitter about missing Goerne/Eschenbach Winterreise the previous Monday, I saw the all-Bartok program on the following Saturday w/ Eschenbach, Goerne and Michelle DeYoung in a concert performance of Bluebeard's castle. (Yes, I skipped Fidelio, because I don't really like it and because the weather was super nice the Thursday I could go. Though reviews like this certainly make me second guess that decision.)
Anyhow. This was a tremendous Bluebeard, driven by Eschenbach's expansive, emotionally exhausting reading and the NSO's searing sound under his baton. Shattering moments of raw power like the "opening of the 5th door" (twitter plot synopsis: Bluebeard takes new wifey Judith home, opens 7 doors, last one are previous murdered wives, she joins 'em. Fin.) replete with trombones in the balcony, will not soon be forgotten. But nor will the delicate, haunting colors found in some of the quiet, dread charged exchanges between Bluebeard and Judith.
Both soloists were very fine. Michelle DeYoung offered a rich characterization for Judith, projecting a heady mixture of fear of, as well as passion for Bluebeard, via a notably sweet ringing sound. Matthias Goerne played off her burbling enthusiasm with an unflinching portrayal that left no doubt he should be first in line if they ever do an opera of Sling Blade. I've only ever heard Goerne live in big symphonic settings, and it always leaves me wishing I could hear a recital already. While dramatically fascinating, there's no denying that the smoky color which makes his lieder so uniquely exquisite just doesn't scale as well as voices that with more cutting edges. But he was nonetheless riveting.
Before the half we got Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" suite, which I heard the NSO do this last year or the year before sometime. Again, this fascinating work, which perfectly captures a certain cinematic sound world of the early 20th century, proved itself an ideal showpiece for the orchestra. The NSO could do a very fun show featuring this and other early 20th century works for the stage and screen by major composers.
One final note--many of the otherwise positive reviews of this concert made the now routine complaint that Eschenbach let's the orchestra swamp his singers in big moments. I'm starting to feel like maybe this isn't so much a "balance problem" as Eschenbach just actually not giving a shit. Clearly, people are free to disagree with his choices, but just to be clear, it seems to be not so much a case of carelessness as the fact that sometimes he feels the orchestra's "fff" shouldn't be hindered by the relatively puny volume limits of the soloist.

Monday, March 12, 2012

WNO Announces

So, apparently some glitch is preventing me from getting WNO emails anymore and I was also kind of oblivious last week, hence the tardy comment on their 2012-2013 season announcement, which goes something like this:
  • Anna Bolena w/ SondRAD in her role debut
  • Manon Lescaut w/ Pat Racette
  • Norma w/ Angela Meade and Dolora Zajick
  • Don Giovanni w/ Ildar Abdrazakov and Barbara Frittoli
  • Showboat a la Zambello
The names are a decided improvement in casting glamour over the current season's modesty, but it's hard to read this lineup as anything other than WNO crawling even further back in its shell.
It wasn't always this way. They seem to have disabled the single page WNO performance history since the merger, but browse around this mess for a bit and you'll see a very different kind of WNO--one that produced a lot of chestnuts, sure, but also made room for at least one or two significantly off-the-beaten path works, especially American and post-1950 pieces, per season. Replacing this slot with (what is sure to be) a poorly put together musical, is all it takes to change the WNO from a company that pays the bills but still has something distinctive to say to one that know.
I'll probably see everything except Showboat (a near-death-by-boredom experience during the tour of the Hal Prince version back in the day has turned me off of poorly-thought-out productions of that thing forever), and will be downright excited about Anna Bolena and Norma. But c'mon, WNO, throw us a bone.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Cosi at WNO

Well there is certainly no shortage of faults to be found in WNO's new Cosi, I'm afraid. Jonathan Miller's production, which has been kicking around for nearly 20 years (it premiered at ROH in 1995), is something of a racket, it seems. Impossibly nondescript, this Cosi takes place nowhere and may thus be pitched anywhere; it travels from town to town, hawking its "contemporary" aesthetic and spinning promises to flood the opera house with the cheapest of laughs through gimmicks like including local references in the super-title translations ("Leesburg," "Baltimore," and "Adams Morgan" are put forth as potential origins of the disguised lovers, har-har). I suspect even Miller's program note is populated using mail merge.
The trouble is that a successful "updating" requires so much more than simply clothing people in generic "contemporary" dress and doling out the cell phones (though i must say the single finger iphone stroke makes for a great stage gesture). A coherent concept must find some logic in a modern setting that can align with the logic of the original play, be it congruent, dissonant, or what have you. Miller's Cosi has zero ideas about this, he just wants to see the guys in snappy suits.
But much more damning than a meh physical production, the direction is just lame. Cosi's great dramatic interest has to do with the way it blurs the line between farce and serious drama, but time and again, Miller's production (or whoever is responsible at this point) squanders them, overplaying the farce and leaving opportunities for creating something more resonant on the table.
And unfortunately the problems didn't end with the production. Phillipe Auguin--and y'all know I got love--kindled some embers here and there, but more often we got this turgid four-square business that unfortunately seemed critical to keeping the frequent coordination problems from getting out of hand.
But Cosi is scrappy, right? With strong singers and actors its awfully difficult not to come up with some irresistible goodness, and so, for all of the aforementioned problems, it was still an enjoyable evening. Elizabeth Futral offered a strong, persuasive Fiordiligi despite the occasional absurdities demanded by the production (e.g. the hoochie dancing and cougar-tastic ensembles); both Come Scoligio and especially Per Pieta commanded attention, if momentum flagged during the finale of the latter. Renata Pokupic brought a sweet, playful sound to Dorabella's music, and blended nicely with Futral in the duet work.
On the male side of the ledger: Teddy Tahu Rhodes' considerable charisma carried most of the farce for the evening and for that we thank him; the voice is certainly commanding, though by the end I was finding it less interesting than just loud. Joel Prieto seemed to lack the support needed to really send Ferrando's "L'auna amorosa" over the top, but his winning, sweet tone and touching delivery were enough to make it a rewarding moment.
And finally, kudos to William Shimell's Don Alfonso, sung with great class and, in his ruthless malevolence, perhaps the only character that seemed to represent some kind of a clear choice in this production. I'm not sure if anything so dull as a "Washington DC Cosi" is really worth producing, but if you were going to do it, this evil lawyer/lobbyist Don Alfonso would certainly be a way to go.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Orphee at Virginia Opera

The chauffeur and the poet journey to the underworld, and watch as Cégeste is questioned by a panel of judges. (Photo by David A. Beloff)
Listen up DMV people who have bemoaned the less-than-imaginative WNO season this year--the Virginia Opera deserves some love. For just one more show Sunday afternoon, they are offering a very worthwhile production of Phillip Glass' captivating 1993 opera Orphee (originally from Glimmerglass) that may very well be the finest example of 20th century opera one is going to see in the region this season.
Orphee is essentially a musicalization (operatization?) of Jean Cocteau's 1949 film Orfee, an updating and interrogation of sorts of the Orpheus myth. Here, Orpheus' great love is not Euridyce, but death itself, as embodied in the mysterious character of the Princess. Death is in love with Orpheus as well, and sends Euridyce to Hades in order to be with him. Orpheus journeys there to retrieve her, but that fateful glance that dooms Euridyce to the underworld comes after she and Orpheus are back at home and forced to hide from each other in their small apartment. Rather than a moment of faithlessness, he looks at her and returns her to the underworld because "it was bound to happen sooner or later". Having finally gotten Orpheus back, however, the Princess sacrifices herself to ensure the poets immortality, sending him back to live out his life with Euridyce. (And if that doesn't make sense...well, you should probably just see it.)
While all of Glass' telltale markers are in place, this is a vastly different challenge than his recently heard Satyagraha. In the use of repeated figures to build tension and guide understanding of a complicated plot and the expert setting of dense, conversational text, one is inclined to think more of Poulenc. The dizzying first Act, which spins around the mystery of the Princess with disorienting clues and portents, burbles along with a jazz inflected sound reminiscent of the film's setting. Yet the real accomplishment is the second act, where Glass highlights the great tragic romance between Orpheus and the Princess/Death character in a series of compelling scenes.
VA Opera fielded a fine cast, particularly the rich Orphee of Matthew Worth, Sara Jakubiak's ringing Eurydice, and Jonathan Blalock's Cegeste. While I initially felt strongly that Heather Buck's Princesse sounded not-quite-right for Glass, she turned out to be perhaps the production's greatest asset, realizing the Princess' material with thrilling intensity. Jeffrey Lentz' served the part of Heurtebise well dramatically, but vocally did not quite match his colleagues in this music. Steven Jarfi conducted the score with great passion and momentum, never allowing the repetition to become static.
The whole thing is expertly staged by Sam Helfrich, who plays on the mirror motif (the passage between the living world and the underworld in the film) with supernumeraries playing "mirror images" of the principles engaging in an intricate choreography as the action shifts between spaces. A handsome modern apartment set replete with various "mirrored" spaces is skillfully lit to delineate different locations.
Much credit is due to VA Opera for making this production happen. While this would surely be a hot ticket in some locales, in Fairfax the company has been rewarded with a lot of empty seats and intermission snark. This is a piece that desperately deserves a broader audience and should be able to get one (nothing so intolerably transgressive about tonality and greek mythology is there?). But, as Charles Downey points out, its a piece of theatre that needs to be produced to be appreciated. Companies like this to take the plunge.
Update: Here's Anne Midgette's review.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Gotterdammerung: Washing the Bearskin

First the pleasant section about what was a solid if not extraordinary reading of Gotterdamerung last Friday's premiere offered, falling slightly above par for the cycle on the whole.

This is certainly Deborah Voigt's most successful Brunnhilde of the three, with a sound delightfully rich and comfortable after those effortful Walkure and Siegfried B-hilds. The end of the Dawn Duet included a rockin' final C, Act II was an impressive feat of stamina and the Immolation, if stopping short of ecstatic territory, was powerfully sung and a great improvement vocally over most of the other Brunnhildes in the Met rolodex.

This was my first time seeing JHM live after his dreamy turn in that Siegfried HD-cast in the fall. The volume issues, even with Luisi's singer friendly playing, are certainly a challenge live, and the depth of his charm on the screen is a bit lost at 500 yards. Still, his commitment to finding the beauty in Siegfried's music is always in evidence, and notorious tenor killing passages came off with great sensitivity. As hoped, his death scene was finely sung and quite moving.

But the overall strength of this Gotterdammerung owes at least as much to its supporting cast as its principles. The Hagen of Hans Peter Konig was the biggest sound happening on stage by some margin and a constant source of musical excitement. Other highlights included Iain Paterson's harrowing portrait of a Gunther consumed by his fears and guilt, a robust Norn crew led by Elisabeth Bishop, and of course the twin juggernauts of Waltraud Meier's Waltraute and Eric Owens' Alberich.

Luisi's way with Wagner, such a revelation in Siegfried, was less distinctive here, but very rewarding nonetheless. The boundless energy and lithe movement of the score in Luisi's hands is ever intriguing if a bit inert in those moments where ultimate grandeur is called for.

* * *

And now the less pleasant section.

Oh, LePage Ring cycle. I don't know if I have the energy anymore. The Gotterdammerung production had more to recommend it than the Rheingold or Walkure (I'd call it a toss-up with the Siegfried, though my thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt since I only saw it in broadcast), but the fatal flaws of the enterprise are still very much in evidence. The LePage Ring remains a prototype physical concept in search of a story, and the audience's experience of the Ring, despite substantial musical achievement, is the poorer for it.

So what worked? The two large group scenes (the vassals in Act II and hunting party in Act III) were staged traditionally but very effectively--for long stretches we got minimal funny-business from the Machine, allowing those scenes to unfold without distraction. Several touches, like Siegfried's pitiful attempt to take another shot at Hagen after he's been stabbed in the back, were particularly inspired. Gotterdammerung lacked any image as striking as those snowy trees from Walkure or the forest wall from Siegfried, but points for the Act III forest scene with its huge waterfall (nice to see what the Rhinemaidens are swimming in for once) and the Gibichung throne room.

This last image, a huge golden disc pattern, seemed, along with a few of the transition projections, to indicate a more abstract, perhaps even psychedelic, direction for this installment, which would have been a welcome liberation from the literal-minded drudgery of the previous shows. But alas, the golden disc thing turned out to be a lame tree ring (cuz like, wood burns and that's why the Gibichung palace goes up in flames, got it?) and the trippy transition sequences were used sparingly and never developed.

So, on that note, here is the now standard selection of offenses against stagecraft for this final Ring installment, by category:

1. Make-work for the machine award: For the Norn weaving of fate sequence, we basically have the Machine serving as a giant cat's cradle. This is one of those situations where one could make thoughtful suggestions about how maybe it looks like a giant loom, or, isn't it clever that the spinning planks cut off the different ropes--but they all miss the point, which is that this "idea" only serves to draw attention to the ugly, bizarre, dramatically inert object dominating the stage and distract from the actual drama.

2. Putting cast members in harm's way: In Act III scene I, the Rhinemaidens continuously clamber up that waterfall projection mentioned above and then slide down under the lip of the planks in the front of the stage. Here again we have the production mistaking actors doing something nervewrackingly dangerous onstage for an actual stage illusion. Every time one of them slid down the thing (and no, a waterfall projection does not a complete illusion make when accompanied by the sound of butts skidding on fiberglass) the audience collectively gasped about whether she would smack her head on the front planks.

3. Upstaging the opera with unnecessary set pieces: And of course, the LePage Ring has often indulged in using the set to stage trivial moments that confuse the balance of the drama. Here LePage zeroed in on the several pages around Siegfried's arrival at the Gibichung castle. Yes, the dialogue there seems to exist solely to fudge the fact that its really hard to stage people in the interior of a house and someone arriving on a riverbank simultaneously, but its also a trivial part of the script. LePage uses the opportunitity to show the machine clumsily "doing" a river, and Hagen ends up stupidly narrating his arrival to the rest of the Gibichungs who can see it with their own eyes.

But surely the least forgiveable offense is the deeply unimaginative and clunky staging of the opera's climax. I won't go into too much detail, as it has been excoriated in other outlets already, but for this production to so baldly phone in a moment both heavily anticipated for years now, not to mention its greatest chance for redemption, is all the proof one needs that no one is really invested in this failure any longer.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

NSO plays Matthews, Mackey, Sibelius

Saw the NSO with violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu last night, in the DC-premiere of a captivating violin concerto by the composer Steve Mackey composed, Sibelius' 5th, and orchestrations of selected Debussy Preludes by Colin Matthews.
The Mackey piece, "Beautiful Passing," was composed with Josefowicz in mind in 2008. Josefowicz played some of the key themes before the performance and explained their provenance in Mackey's experience of his mother's death. I can appreciate this as a way to get an audience to identify with a new work--its hard to expect even the most open-minded concert-goers to develop much rapport with a complex piece the first time out. Premieres end up being "that new thing" between the overture and symphony. Some framing and a story, live from the musicians or composer, helps ensure listeners walk away with a lasting association, even if they can't hum the tune.
Yet, as Robert Reilly notes here, a work like this should really stand on its own as a piece of abstract music and learning about the "program" in this way can be a bit distracting. For instance, the work opens with a violent contest between wild percussive gnashing in the orchestra and the exuberant, almost desperate violin solo--it ends softly, the violin exhausted, the orchestra at a quiet drone. We are told this is Mackey's mother resigning herself to die, but such information seems so terribly reductive when applied to this rich, evocative music. Words and stories fail, as they should, to describe the experience. While inspired by a specific experience for the composer, the music becomes more universal, in the hearing, transcending its subject matter. Which is all to say, my hope for this worthwhile piece is that it is still played in 10 years but that the majority of audience members without the initiative to check out its history are none the wiser about its context.
Josefowicz was quite stunning in the solo part, embracing the raucous dance figures that reappear throughout with diabolical gusto and imbuing the closing section with a devastating sense of collapse.
After the half was a bravura performance of Sibelius' 5th symphony. Lintu goaded along the rollicking rhythms of the first movement with swift, intense precision, culminating in an ecstatic climax that was hard not to applaud. The winning final movement (I swear to God that theme is ripped off in a tearful Don Bluth-animated animal reunion somewhere) was urgent but suitably majestic. Lintu clearly has that great intangible conducting skill of maintaining momentum while allowing the audience to appreciate the "vertical" harmony and texture in a work. The NSO sounded agile and rich throughout, though some shrillness in the winds and scattered coordination problems in the strings were popped up.
The concert opened with a series of five Debussy preludes, as orchestrated by the composer Colin Matthews, apparently best known for his role in Deryk Cooke's performance version of Mahler's 10th. This may be a personal bias, but I have difficulty seeing the point of these sorts of projects. The Preludes are quintessential creatures of the piano, and, not having particularly memorable tunes, much of their appeal is bound up in the way Debussy's colors play on that instrument. Why one would want to hear an orchestra try its hand is unclear. Moreover, it is exceedingly grating to hear Debussy's music orchestrated in a way that is far removed from how Debussy's orchestral music actually sounds. Not that I would find it particularly worthwhile to hear someone fake Debussy's style, but there is some deep cognitive dissonance in listening to the composer's music via a sensibility far more obvious and schmaltzy than anything we would expect from Debussy himself. Not saying all orchestrations are bad ideas, but it doesn't work for all material.
(And dere's Downey's original take at Ionarts.)

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Zuill Bailey plays Bach

Zuill Bailey did the cellist's Iron Man yesterday at Strathmore--a back-to-back performance of all six of the Bach unaccompanied cello suites. His disc of the suites is here.
It's no mystery why people don't run this gauntlet in public more often. After a decade of preparation, a recording under his belt, and a lifetime of performing the suites like any cellist, a live performance is still riddled with dicey moments well outside the realm of "respectable" CD-smooth sound audiences are at least thought to demand. In short, it's a beast, and a very different experience from all those laboratory-created performances swimming around one's head.
Yet thank goodness we have brave souls willing to do it, as it is a very special thing indeed to hear them live. A cherished performance memory for me will always be sitting in the front row at a Bargemusic concert during a frigid winter in what must have been 2001 or 2002 for a performance of the fifth suite by Fred Sherry. Watching Sherry bear-wrestle his cello to the ground to extract this remarkable music was a visceral experience, not soon forgotten.
A traversal of all six in a large venue like the main Strathmore hall is bound to be less captivating, of course. There are some basic endurance issues that give a concert like Bailey's more of a congenial exhibition flavor than a full-throated reading. (Bailey wisely embraced the not-quite-a-normal-recital circumstances by adding a generous helping of charming anecdotes and his own thoughts about the suites throughout.) And of course, this is music of a surpassingly intimate character that is ill-suited to a full-sized concert hall. The atmosphere for yesterday's show was also not helped by a Strathmore sponsor who decided 120 minutes of solo baroque cello music was a clear winner for families and offered free tickets to kids, leading to constant disruptions throughout by bored-out-of-their-minds children.
But all that aside, there were many things to love about the afternoon. Bailey uses his instrument, a 1693 Gofriller cello originally designed to serve more of a bass role in baroque orchestras, to stunning effect, opening up the range of these pieces with a rich, booming lower register (find an excerpt from the CD and check it out). The uptempo dances are earthy, rhythmic, and at times downright raw, reflecting Bailey's interest in emphasizing the forms that inspire the different movements over a more abstract approach. Beauty of tone is surely sacrificed in some places, but this approach frequently pays dividends in exciting, kinetic interpretations. He contrasts these with leisurely, almost indulgent, readings of the slower movements, for instance a stately, intimate Sarabande from the 4th suite and a spectral, haunting Sarabande in the 5th. Special commendation, too, for Bailey's lovely and simple take on the first suite, a carefree reading that brought new interest to these well-trod pieces. He offered the prelude to No. 1 again as his only encore, inviting the audience to reflect on the remarkable journey these pieces represent.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Stuff from last year: Lucia at WNO

More from before the break...After the competent but pedestrian Tosca that opened the season, WNO's Lucia de Lammermoor, in a production by David Alden, was a most welcome second outing. I saw the B cast led by Lyubov Petrova on November 16.
Alden's placement of the opera in a sort of nightmare-Victorian-asylum-type space stands in stark contrast to a lazy Victorian "updating" like the LA Romeo discussed below. Where that production seemed mostly motivated by a desire to spare the audience the spectacle of drippy Renaissance costumes, Alden is deadly serious about stripping away the Lucia's kitsch to get at the social and sexual themes that drove the work's contemporary appeal. The biggest choice is a foregrounding of the Enrico-Lucia relationship--indeed, one might read Enrico and Lucia as the only "real" characters in this production, orphans abandoned long ago in an institution. Both are emotionally stunted, Enrico by his failures and Lucia by Enrico, who abuses and lusts after his sister, then suffers remorse for it. The other characters in the opera are almost figments of their psychoses, Edgardo becomes Lucia's storybook fantasy of a highland protector and a virile reminder to Enrico that he cannot have his sister; Arturo, presented as a literally golden dandy, is Enrico's perverse vision of the self-realized adulthood that eludes him.
All in all this is a rich and provocative production and a model of the kind of regie-lite (genuinely provocative, but not greedy for headlines) interpretation that a company like WNO would benefit from trying out at least once a season. One quibble I saw mentioned elsewhere was the final gesture of the production, Enrico snapping Edgardo's neck after his suicide. Between this and the gratuitous neck snapping doled out to Ulrica in last season's Ballo production, the WNO stage is starting to resemble the less credible kills in a Lethal Weapon movie. Enough already.
But this would hardly have been such a success without a strong, game cast. Charles Downey saw both casts and I suspect his assessment of Petrova as the dramatically richer, if slightly less musically consistent Lucia is correct. Her "Regnava nel silenzio" was not the most promising start, lacking a certain finesse in the phrasing. That was quickly forgotten however, by her committed work throughout the middle acts and a decidedly stunning Mad Scene. Brian Mulligan, as Enrico, was solid vocally but really shone in his willingness to inhabit all the neuroses and desperation demanded by the production. Someone whose name I can't find right now made for a robust and satisfying Edgardo, with good work up and down the rest of the roster. And Auguin back in the pit!

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Stuff from last year: Dark Sisters

So anyways: way on back in early November I saw Dark Sisters (i.e. the other Nico Muhly opera, about polygamists in a splinter Mormon sect, with libretto by Stephen Karam). Reviews of this first run (it returns in Philadelphia in June) were, shall we say, very cautiously supportive and littered with a non-insignificant amount of commentary that had more to do with a canned meta-narrative (good for you classical music! sort of!) than the work at hand, but for my part I was pretty taken with it.
Here is a work that is really invested in using the possibilities of opera to support modern theatre, a marriage that seems so ideal but is rarely consummated. Works like "An American Tragedy" (though clearly I would go if they put it up again) seem disturbingly dominant in the major league new opera landscape, when the target demographic is making events out of pieces like "Nixon in China" and "Satyagraha" that look a lot more like the kind of straight theatre being made by interesting folks everywhere except the opera house. But I believe I was just bashing meta-narratives, wasn't I, so...specifics:
The score is an intimate and ever rewarding player in the piece--not just an extension of the characters' transient emotions but a manifestation of the illusion that surrounds and isolates them, the presence of the moral and religious code (patriarchy, yo) that structures the way they see the world. The heretical thoughts of Eliza, the rebellious wife at the center of the story, are tied to dissonant motifs that challenge the sweet, narcotic atmosphere established for the sister wives.
I dunno, maybe that sounds obvious, but the effect is deeply immersive, and realizes the central emotional tenet of what the piece is trying to convey about these women: to understand why they stay in lives that appear so dreadful means understanding not just how they are trapped, but how they feel comforted and tied to this world that is deeply ingrained in them. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the piece is Armela's plaintive aria halfway through the first Act, in which she encourages Eliza to abandon her wayward thoughts to ensure they will be together in heaven. And yet, while doing a tremendous job of creating sympathetic characters in these women (as opposed to just victims) it also shows their cruelty and capacity to close ranks against their "sisters" under threat of offending their husband.
My chief quibble is with the pacing of the main narrative story about Eliza's decision to defect from the family. When, in the final scene, Eliza's daughter rejects her in favor of the sect Eliza has abandoned to save her, there should be more of an emotional punch, but it comes too quickly. I would almost prefer an ending with less resolution--perhaps a split scene where we see the daughter attending the funeral juxtaposed with Eliza coping with her strange new life on the outside.
Rebecca Taichman's production is mostly very strong, with a simple, arresting set evoking the red dirt of the desert, and the powerful recurring motif of the sisterwives' dresses stained with its dust providing memorable images. If anything, Taichman's staging abandons its abstract strengths too readily--I can imagine straightforward set pieces like the television interview with the sisters (in which a screen in the "studio" displays footage of the sisters being filmed real time while they sit on the opposite side of the stage) easily accommodate and in fact profit from less literal staging choices.
Though if I could make one big request of the staging--lose the video, k? Clearly, the scene is a television interview, and the temptation to use onstage video strong it is. But I can imagine a raft of different configurations that would increase the impact of this segment, and none involve the deadening, alienating effect of onstage video. Someday I would like to see a video gimmick done in such a way that the real-time feed looks something like the kind of real-world studio quality feed that is being portrayed, but until then it just evokes awkward home movies and it sucks.
I'm shortchanging the cast, but only because all the reviews two months ago were uniform in their praise. This was a first-rate group of singing actresses (and actor) and it was great to see what they were able to do with the very ample opportunities the score provides for distinctive statements by the key wife characters.