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.