Wednesday, October 09, 2013

I Masnadieri at WCO

I Masnadieri, Washington Concert Opera, September 22, 2013
Walker; Thomas, Oropesa

Well, thanks to the GOP I have a lot of time on my hands right now so thought I'd go back and finish this post about the first of the two Verdi rarities WCO is doing this season, I Masnadieri, from last month...

The libretto, from a play by Schiller, doesn't make for a very good opera, but, set to a lot of solid early-mid period Verdi, it is at least bad in interesting ways. It's not that I Masnadieri's forgettable principals have so much more personality than beloved stock characters elsewhere, but here we find them systematically shorn of that choice or relationship that makes for compelling drama. Love interest Amalia stands steadfastly by her man Carlo even though he's rashly started rampaging with the bandits, but up until the surprise stabbing ending, this really seems like the noble choice. Carlo himself seems like a better bet, but his tragedy turns on his shame in joining the bandits, who, with their campy choruses, seem about as threatening as those South Pacific roughs. His failing father, Massimiliano, might have driven home this shame point, but unfortunately they don't have a scene together until late in the play, when a bewildered Massimiliano (having been imprisoned in a tomb by the evil brother) doesn't even recognize Carlo as his son. As for that evil brother, Francesco, we get three acts of unmitigated mustache-twirling and then, out of nowhere, comes a compelling monologue about dreams of hell signifying some sort of burgeoning guilt, but our window of interest is long past. It makes one appreciate the skill with which a piece like Trovatore takes similar raw materials but delivers an immortal potboiler instead.

The evening's Carlo, Russel Thomas, offered the evening's greatest vocal attraction--a big swashbuckling sound that provided pleasure throughout Carlo's solid if not terribly memorable numbers. Only real point of reservation were some unrefined sounds in his piano singing. Lisette Oropesa was perhaps the best known name onstage given her growing list of Met roles (though I think I've only heard her Woodbird via HD). The sound is distinguished and highly controlled with a bit of astringent edge, capable of blossoming wonderfully in the top of the voice. She made handy work of the role's coloratura components, though more admirable than effortless. Mind you, its hard to imagine Amalia's cumbersome opening aria, written as a showpiece calling card for Jenny Lind, coming off much better.

WCO offered a fine array of lower-voiced men to round out the cast, all of which deserved praise, including Scott Hendricks as villain Francesco, Hao Jiang Tian as the unlucky father, and a short but memorable turn by Solomon Howard as the priest who denies Francesco absolution.

Maestro Antony Walker made an excellent case for many of the work's constituent parts, particularly the ensemble closing the first act. The WCO orchestra followed him dutifully through some ambitious tempi that really showed off the momentum Verdi creates, marred only by a few brief moments of fuzziness for the strings. While the choral parts ultimately tend to detract from the overall thrust of the drama, high props must be given to the group assembled here, particularly the men, which kept the precision and musical values high through a great deal of material, including a particularly challenging extended a cappella chorus.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Because the Night...Tristan at WNO

Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, September 18, 2013
Auguin; Theorin, Storey, Bishop, Rutherford, Schwinghammer

Well, DC's love affair with Phillipe Auguin shows no signs of abating if this past Wednesday's Tristan und Isolde (the second outing of this run) is any evidence. Auguin and the WNO received probably the biggest applause of the evening and it was well deserved, too. Again and again, Auguin found that Wagner sweet spot, maintaining a constant momentum while never noticeably shortchanging that critical stillness where needed. The WNO orchestra sounded gorgeous throughout, save, oddly, some pitchiness on a few of the solo violin parts.

The production, from Opera Australia, is straightforward but handsome, keying primarily off the first act's ship deck but abstract enough to serve for the other locales. There is a water feature, which is nice, but the finest moments came with some of the lighting effects, which brilliantly illuminate the monochrome set at choice moments, for instance, a spectacular sunrise for the end of the Act II duet. The blocking is restrained, allowing a focus on the music. The staging of the prelude, however, in which Isolde enters with Tristan early on, only to nap through the next 7 minutes or so, seemed like the worst kind of counterproductive prelude staging, where the audience was teased with enough stage action to distract from the music, but then given nothing of substance to make it worthwhile.

Deborah Voigt's cancellation had a happy ending, as the DMV got another chance to hear Irene Theorin, one of the heroes of WNO's memorable/infamous Gotterdammerung: In Concert several years back. She duly dominated Act I, with a thrilling conclusion to the curse narrative. Others may excel in sheer beauty of sound, but Theorin's solid, passionate sound ensured the big moments of Act I soared as intended.

While the orchestra remained in top form, the Act II duet was less successful vocally, with both Theorin and her Tristan, Ian Storey, encountering balance issues with the pit. Where Theorin's challenges seemed most likely a bit of miscalculation, Storey's limitations felt more fundamental. At forte, within a limited band, he turns out a great sound in a sort of rough and tumble Clifton Forbis mode. But getting traction on the delicate piano dynamics of the duet was a challenge. Getting this passage to fulfill its potential in real time always seems tremendously improbable, and this performance was no exception--significant effort notwithstanding, the magic didn't really click until shortly before the final climax. Baritone Wilhelm Schwinghammer offered a compelling Koenig Marke to close the Act. (Wagner skeptic friend at 2nd intermission: "That was the best part! At least he had some good points to make...")

While not ideal for Act II, Storey acquitted himself admirably in the great Act III sequence for Tristan, providing his scarred, granite voice providing a durable, effective vehicle for Tristan's madness. James Rutherford contributed a particularly sympathetic Kurwenal. Unfortunately, the castle invasion sequence ended up being a bridge too far for this intimate production, with clumsy handling of the scores of knights. I'm sure there's a production out there that gets this right, but how refreshing would it be to have this moment staged as a spasm of really cathartic violence instead of a string of slightly doofy opera fights? Great closing Liebestod from Theorin.

A winning night overall, and what a delight to start the season with something meaty rather than, say, warmed-over Tosca!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wagner Bicentennial Peeps Diorama

Stop what you are doing and go vote for our Die Walkure-inspired peeps diorama on the Washington Post website:

For the record, Chereau, Wieland Wagner (an anti-peep diorama), and Zambello (for some local flavor) were considered as other jumping off points, but the team reached a compromise to not be complete nerds, and we went with kitschified Schenk.

Vote early and often!

Update: A few more pics, full gallery here. Here's Wotan waiting just off stage to lay the smack down on Peephilde...

The orchestra...

And still hanging around beneath the stage are some of Nibelungen, and just offstage above is a very melancholy looking Peep-glinde...

And here's some more detail of the audience:

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Manon Lescaut at WNO

So, before I get into the show itself, I must admit to being an in-house Manon Lescaut newbie. While seeing the thing staged didn't exactly make me a convert, I definitely have a better appreciation for where its virtues lie, especially when the indomitable Pat Racette was making the case.

Her success was perhaps slightly tempered by a somewhat middling cast around her--one was more or less biding the time til she opened her mouth again--but surely a success nonetheless. The part sits beautifully in her voice, and the audience sat in rapt attention at the delicate shading she brought to each of the big moments, not least of all her "Sola, Perdutta, Abandonnata." That said, there's certainly room for her to take the character deeper--there isn't too much breathing space between flighty and somber in that second Act, and Racette hasn't quite thread the needle on how to make the whole thing click, while the desperation of Act III was credible but not quite distinctive yet.

Her Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev, delivered a big beefy sound where it counts, but inconsistencies plagued the rest of his performance. He had an awfully rough time getting started, and once there still managed to frequently slip into muddy intonation and choppy support. A limited bag of FX and sense of nuance also meant the arias were pretty static. Though credit is due for his work in Acts 3 and 4--his palabale anguish and ringing upper register made for a fine partner to Racette and the Le Havre/Louisiana desert sequence resonated in a way that the Act II reunion did not. (Though to my newbie vantage point, this scene feels generally problematic, with the audience poorly set up to sympathize with the lovers in the absence of any other material showing Des Grieux and Manon in love, something Massenet's iteration does quite well.)

Musical values were reinforced by Philipe Auguin in the pit, who delivered a warm, precise reading of the score and brought the best out of the WNO band. As his sophomore year draws to a close, Auguin's presence on the podium continues to guarantee an evening of high musical interest.

This revival is the work of director John Pascoe, who also brought us the fall's very effective Don Giovanni--unfortunately both dramatic and aesthetic sensibilities feel muddled here. Making sense of the 19th century values that drive the Manon story is a challenge for thoughtful modern productions of either of the great settings, and with obstacles like the leaden coquetry business in the first Act, this challenge should not be underestimated.  Yet these questions are really central to how the work is presented: how should we engage the "fallen woman" narrative? What does our sympathy for Manon and ostensible identification with Des Grieux mean? How do we understand the character's choices relative to the male authority figures which shape and bind her path at every step?

Pascoe doesn't offer many clear ideas on these fronts, but rather seems to actually dig in around a deliberately non-inquisitive reading. Take for instance the cloyingly nostalgic device of a Disney-enchanted-castle size piece of parchment paper upon which Des Grieux' narration from the original novel appears, which splits apart to reveal each scene, and sometimes closes halfway to frame one of the key arias (props where due--the last is an effective choice). Watching Puccini's great personal statements for Manon delivered, literally, through the prism of Des Grieux' pen is the kind of setup another production might have a field day with, but alas, I think here we are supposed to take it at face value.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New Parsifal at the Met

Caught the final night of the new Met Parsifal last Saturday and will add my voice to the chorus that has rightly praised this production's thoughtfulness and superior musical virtues. After the debacle of the LePage Ring, the Met really needed to prove it could still do right by Wagner, and with this show, they have unquestionably shown that they can.

The cast speaks for itself, bringing together some of the finest exponents of these roles available today. Kaufmann's unique baritone-flavor tenor brings a very different color to the music than the traditional blazing heldentenor sound, which aligns nicely with the bleak sobriety of the production. Pape's Gurnemanz is pretty much the gold standard, of course--listening to that unceasing outpouring of lush legato you can only pity whoever has to eventually step into his shoes. Dalayman was loud and awesome, as is her wont, even if Act 2 didn't quite catch fire the way it did last time with Waltraud.

But the revelation of the evening, at least for me, was Peter Mattei's Amfortas. Mattei's rich, urgent sound and beautifully precise realization of this part has, I think, permanently banished Thomas Hampson as the default Amfortas I hear in my head, and for that I thank him (and no, I don't really mean that as a burn on Hampson, whose Amfortas is a reminder of all the good things about him and very few of the bad, but it's just been way too long since I got excited about Amfortas, you know?) To boot, Mattei offered a searing physical performance the likes of which one rarely sees in the opera house, a testament to both his acting chops and the direction.

As for the production by Francois Girard, it gets some big things very right and at least one thing pretty wrong--a success to be sure, but a qualified one...

In Girard's vision, the grail knights inhabit a barren world devoid of any nature or sustenance, indeed of any evidence of the divine save for the magic spear and goblet talismans anchoring their bleak outlook. The knights spend most of Act I hunched in a tight, insular circle, a symbol not of equal brotherhood but of society feeding on itself incessantly. Moreover, while there are more women than usual in this grail zone, they are pointedly segregated upstage, suggesting that the all-male society of the grail is more a symptom of its sickness than its purity. These are simple gestures painted on a simple setting, but Girard deftly evokes a sense of utter spiritual deprivation.

Given Parsifal's affinities with science fiction, one is tempted to see this wasteland as a post-apocalyptic landscape or some other exotic locale. Yet Girard tells us plainly that the world presented on stage is a metaphor for our shared society. As the prelude begins, we see a black reflective surface dimly displaying the auditorium, which lifts to reveal the cast in rows mirroring the audience in their seats. Sure, the pat "these characters are...YOU" moment can be heavy-handed, especially when introduced as a reveal to stoke some point of cognitive dissonance. But the intention is honest here--simply informing the audience of the parameters of the interpretation presented.

The problem really lies with Act II, which places Klingsor and the flower maidens in a shallow pool of blood somewhere below the parched grail landscape, and is meant to represent a journey into the actual wound of Amfortas. Zerbinetta at Likely Impossibilities has an incisive critique of the situation here:
Parsifal is a confusing work, sure, but it has some central themes that are pretty clear: the knights have been tainted by sensual temptation. Redemption can only come from a pure fool (Parsifal), who first needs to learn compassion. He becomes a sexual ascetic after refusing Kundry’s seduction. So Girard’s idea of inverting this demands some serious intervention in the portrayal of seduction as the source of the knight’s problems as well as Parsifal’s awakening to asceticism, something that he does not do.
OK, this is going to get a little real, but I would go even further and argue that the images Girard plays on by staging Act 2 "in the wound" actually makes for a disturbing affirmation of the work's most retrograde tropes. By staging Kundry's seduction in a pool of blood, on a pristine white bed which grows progressively soiled with blood, Girard has realized Parsifal's rejection not just as a rejection of lust in the name of empathy for Amfortas, but as a moment of visceral body horror. Following this logic, Amfortas' wound is the "wound" all women have, the wound from which all sin originates, and the font of unnatural blood that serves as the evil counterpart to the blood Jesus shed on the cross to redeem man from that sin.

Now, in another production, one might be inclined to read this as an attempt to reveal and reject those tropes, as meta-commentary on the disturbing gender politics which run through how Parsifal is constructed and received. But I'm skeptical that that level of commentary is in this production's DNA. It seems more plausible that the no-doubt inspired gimmick of going INSIDE THE WOUND was too good to pass up and the full ramifications of that choice were never really reconciled with the more subtle ideas that the topside acts play around with.