Saturday, December 13, 2014

Meistersinger at the Met

As Wagner's only comedy, Meistersinger is the thing that is not like the other things in the Wagner canon. Where the other operas present a variety of strange and damaged relationships that easily transcend their 19th century trappings and feel immediately relevant, Meisteringer (at least on its surface) trades in a bunch of dated patriarchal bullshit. While one might be able to dismiss a lot of the ahistorical reasons that Meistersinger makes us uncomfortable, you're still never quite sure how invested you are in this story about someone's boring pretty daughter and the 16th century dudes that alternately want to hit it with her and/or offload her. With any luck you get distracted by the glorious score before going too far down that rabbit hole.

So I was pleased at how truly moving I found last Tuesday's installment of the old Schenk production, currently getting a final airing before Herheim's Meistersinger arrives in 2019. Seeing the thing live for the first time, I really got just how much everything turns on the depth and complexity of Hans Sachs, and in German baritone Michael Volle (who shares the role with JMo for the run) the Met has a truly great interpreter of this role. Volle, who had his Met debut in Arabella last year (which I missed for some stupid reason), offers an eminently watchable, relentlessly intelligent Sachs, at once melancholy old man, sarcastic grump, and serious thinker. Not to mention the voice is always sure and beautiful--despite such a punishing stretch of singing he never slipped into the wooly sound that tends to plague Sachses.

OK. So you have an insightful, penetrating Sachs, there are full size old-timey German houses on stage, and the chorus and orchestra sound great. Now you want better Evas and Walthers too? I've seen this production taking some flack for Johan Botha and Annette Dasch as the young couple, and while not entirely wrong, let's not get greedy. Also, let's admit that part of the problem is comparing this outing to the widely distributed 2001 incarnation featuring Ben Heppner, arguably the greatest Wagnerian of his generation in this rep, and Karita Mattila, world's greatest singing actress, in some awfully decadent casting.

Here's what I want from an Eva and a Walther: voices. I want a Walther that applies a real big voice to the priddy songs and serves up a nice generic level of heroic in the rest. I want an Eva who can handle the demands of the part with ease, especially her quintet stuff, while avoiding that mewling quality that reminds you what a drip that character is. So maybe Annette Dasch is like a really top of the line 50s era Eva who mostly stares blankly and gets led around by the orchestra. And maybe Johan Botha's scenes with Michael Volle remind one a bit of what it would look like if Daniel Day Lewis did a movie with Rob Schneider. So what. Botha sounds great as he bangs through the Preislied, launching that big bear of a voice up the staff and coming away with consistent W's. Dasch has the perfect light, ever so slightly pinched timbre for Eva, and sounds lovely in the ensembles.

The rest of the cast offers much to appreciate as well. Paul Appleby, last seen on the Met stage in Nico Muhly's Two Boys, delivers a bright and affable David, while Hans Peter Konig is an ideal Veit Pogner. The orchestra and chorus, so integral to this behemoth, sounded wonderful. Levine's work stood out in the brought profound beauty and thoughtfulness to the finale, as well as the third act prelude, though early slow pacing did not help with Meistersinger's draggier bits.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Florencia en el Amazonas at WNO

WNO opened its season this past Saturday with Daniel Catan's 1996 opera, "Florencia en el Amazonas," a sort of riff on the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain. Fresh off her acclaimed Elektra at the Proms, Christine Goerke starred as the titular mysterious opera singer in a production directed by Francesca Zambello, previously seen in Los Angeles.

Some might carp about this being "easy" contemporary opera but the appeal of Catan's music is undeniable. The shimmery textures alternating with soaring lyricism make one think of Debussy, or at least all the really money parts of Debussy. But the music always manages to keep our attention without devolving into the syrupy.

The libretto follows the individual issues of the passengers of a river boat en route to a rare recital from the fabled singer. Florencia, on board unbeknownst to most of the passengers, pines after a lover who may be lost in the jungle; Rosalba (Andrea Carroll) a writer who is obsessed with the singer, yearns to finally hear her and gets involved with the captain's restless nephew (Patrick O'Halloran); the captain (David Pittsinger) tries to straighten out his son; and unhappily married couple Paula and Alvaro (Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Michael Todd Simpson) are trying to reconcile their differences.

The promised Gabriel Garcia-Marquez-isms abound throughout the piece, most notably in the character of Riolobo, a sort of omniscient Amazon trickster character who narrates much of the action. Riolobo is a great device, establishing from the outset that this show won't devolve into the kind of cinematic literalism that is often a ticket to dullness for contemporary opera (See Trag, Am). Recognizing the inspiration behind the meandering pace and quirky story beats certainly helps, but its unclear if the story works because the ticks are familiar to us or because the libretto really succeeds on its own terms. A clunky Act I finale, in which the principles reiterate their motivations to minimal dramatic effect amidst a storm on the river, suggests the former might be the case. But if some of the stories feel phoned in, others achieve moments of real poignancy, like the unexpected reuniting of the married couple. But these are mostly thoughts that come later. The important thing is that Florencia nevers feels labored--more or less, the libretto manages to match the diaphonous textures in the score.

And of course, all of this is moot when Christine Goerke starts singing Florencia's glorious music. Catan has written a truly great showcase for the dramatic soprano here, with two stunning set pieces anchoring the beginning of the first and second acts, plus a Liebestod-esque finale. Goerke took some time settling into the punishing first aria, with a few rough placements here and there, but once she hit gear, she excelled at her usual mesmerizing standard. Supporting cast was strong all around--special shout out for Patrick O'Halloran's bright energetic tenor in the roustabout captain's son role.

The production is attractive if frustratingly literal at times. The action takes place on a huge "realistic"  steamboat which turns on a stage revolve to reveal different rooms and scenes, with attractive projections showing the progress of the Amazon and adjust with the position of the boat. A set of dancers, perhaps unnecessarily dressed as Amazon "natives," represent Piranhas, waves, logs, etc. Carolyn Kuan led a persuasive account of the score from the WNO orchestra.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

More Glimerglass 2014: An American Tragedy

To recap: An American Tragedy premiered back at the Met back in 2005 as the opera world was still reeling from Carl Sagan's Romeo and Juliet. A Volpe-era commission from composer Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer, the Met gave it an impressive launch, with a big Broadway style production (directed by Zambello), and an aughties all-star cast of American singers: Nathan Gunn (in the bathing suit that launched a thousand Arts & Leisure puff pieces), Pat Racette, Susan Graham, and Dolora Zajick. I was into it.

Cut to 9 years later: Zambello has brought a streamlined version of the piece back to Glimmerglass for a welcome second hearing with a strong cast of young singers. On the plus side--there's still a lot of engaging material here, even without the splash of the first production. On the other hand, the limitations are clearer this time around--and perhaps insurmountable in the long run.

The great promise of "AmTrag" is Picker's music. Not sure what label you would put on it--perhaps something like "lyrical minimalism"?--but in any event it does a great job of depicting the dread-filled emotional landscape of the story, while maintaining the capacity for displays of great emotional power by the principals, for instance, Roberta's scorching material in the end of Act I ("Marry me Clyde Marry me Clyde Marry me Clyyyyyyyde"). Set pieces like the church scene, in which Roberta's effort to publicly confront Clyde is woven in with the congregation's hymn, and Clyde's mother's gripping aria that carries the finale further demonstrate Picker's skill. Yet while I was again pleasantly taken with the depth of the music, its hard to ignore that the troubles of the libretto.

It's just all so relentlessly...literal. The cinematic/epic Broadway-style approach to the story spawns an endless procession of discrete little scenes that dutifully spin out the plot, but nothing really happens during any of them. The major revision in this version, the removal of a series of opening expository scenes with a childhood Clyde, seems to be trying to compensate a bit for concerns that the show doles out a lot of plot at the expense of drama, but I fear it's not enough.

The big showpiece arias in the first Act--Clyde's thing about fast cars and Sondra's "New York has Changed Me"--are prime examples of how poor a job this libretto does at finding dramatic incident worthy of the kind thoughtful melodrama Picker/Scheer seem to want to write. Both fall flat, unable to gin up much interest with material that does little to give us more insight into the characters than we've already gathered. If Scheer allowed Clyde a moment to wear his heart a bit more on his sleeve, perhaps reveal to the audience a bit more about his sociopathic lust for ambition that will lead to his later amoral acts, we might be engaged, but instead we get seven minutes of the non-surprising information that this social climber thinks nice cars are good. One emotional punch that did land cleanly was Roberta's heartbreaking material at the beginning of Act II, when she grows increasingly distraught that she has been abandoned by Clyde. Her text here is done as though she is reading letters she has written to Clyde, and in part I think it works better because of the easier marriage between emotional content and declaration that Scheer allows himself for this conceit.

The production, directed by Peter Kazaras, is spare and effective (clearly they blew their wad on that big light up barn map of NY state for Ariadne), though the spartan approach on some things, like the drowning scene, made one fondly remember the clever big budget version from the Met. The three main principles, Christian Bowers (Clyde), Vanessa Isiguen (Roberta), and Cynthia Cook (Sondra), all members of the Glimmerglass Young Artist program, offered a skillful reading of what is surely a difficult score. Isiguen deserves special praise for bringing a compelling sound and notable stamina to that character's punishing scenes. Patricia Schuman, playing Clyde's mother made a solid go at this role, so unforgettably sung by Zajick in the premiere, but it is clearly a tall order for any mezzo without Zajick's unique upper extension, and Schuman had a rough time in her upper register.

Kudos to Zambello and Glimmerglass for revisiting this work, which surely deserved the additional hearing that the Met canceled at some point. While my enthusiasm was certainly more measured this time around, Picker deserves continued support and the show, with its juicy principle roles and Americana source material, ought to be a consideration for American companies looking to produce tested, accessible recent work.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Glimmerglass 2014: Ariadne auf Naxos

Headed to Cooperstown last weekend to catch this year's Glimmerglass productions of "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "An American Tragedy," my first trek to the festival since performances of "Jenufa" and Stephen Hartke's "The Greater Good" way back in 2006.

Ariadne, and more specifically, the glory of Christine Goerke fresh off her breakout Met season, was our real reason for attending, and while Goerke didn't disappoint, the production made sure you had to wade through a lot of dreck for the pleasure. As you may have gathered elsewhere, this production, helmed by festival head Francesca Zambello, presents the entirety of the Prologue, as well as the commedia dell'arte portions of the Opera, in one of those zany English "adaptations" that try to "connect" by inserting modern local references and a bunch of punchline driven humor. 

Now, I'm not uniformly opposed to this sort of thing--a liberal English adaptation can be a nice way to occasionally present opera for children and/or newcomers, salvage otherwise hopelessly dated/uninteresting material (Fledermaus), or just have a little fun with a property that has assumed untouchable warhorse status (Zauberflote). But Ariadne? Hugo von Hoffmansthal hasn't even been in his grave for 100 years and its already cool to just mess around with his very careful, deliberate work as you see fit? Especially when its still a fair bet that a large majority of audience members at any given show are seeing the work for the first time? I'm not trying to be the purity police here, but it felt very, very wrong.

But good taste wasn't the only casualty here. Ariadne's virtuoso vocal writing is very carefully married to its German text, and forcing the singers to shoehorn a clumsy English libretto into Strauss' soaring lines resulted in a jumbled mess musically. Catherine Martin seemed to have the right stuff for a solid Komponist, but it was more or less impossible to judge, as the tin-eared adaptation robbed her Act I finale of any of its natural momentum. Martin did her best to scavenge what she could from the text, but where the finale should send you off to intermission swooning with anticipation for Act II, we were left bitterly nursing our discontent. If not quite as big a trainwreck, the crueler loss was "Großmächtige Prinzessin," or, as it will now forever be known in my head, "Don't THINK Me Disrespectful..." (!). The chances that a summer festival like Glimmerglass is going to serve up a great Zerbinetta are pretty slim, which is fine--Rachele Gilmore ably took on all of the parts challenges and supported it with a lively stage presence. But again, I'm loath to judge anyone wrestling with the thornier problem of how to make endless bars of devilish coloratura work while singing the word "surrender."

And its even more of a shame because this perfectly serviceable production would have been fine otherwise. Sure, the overall concept (wealthiest man in Vienna's house = barn in upstate NY, har, har) is a tad cutesy and indulgent, but hey, its August--they are allowed. Zambello has concocted a raft of effective, frenzied stage business nicely suiting the prologue, and the Opera hits all the right notes with moments of lyrical beauty as well as great jokes in the troupe-Diva interactions. Another choice--to have the composer read as a woman wearing trousers rather than a woman in a trouser role--is a great option for modern dress productions and should be more routine.

What else? Bacchus (Corey Bix) had a robust but not terribly pleasant sound (sort of a curdled thing going on), but to his credit he maintained stamina and sailed through the bits where prettier Bacchusses often run aground. The Glimmerglass orchestra, which sounded lovely the following afternoon, was rough throughout Ariadne for some reason. Poor coordination in the strings, frequent misfires in the horns and an overall thin squeezebox sort of effect added to the musical problems onstage. The first half or so of the Prologue also seemed to plod dreadfully, though I'm not sure if that should be chalked up to the conducting (by Kathleen Kelly) or discomfort with the unfamiliar timing required by the new book.

OK, after throwing all that shade, it is worth remembering why we came. La Goerke was in marvellous, thrilling voice for the Diva--the kind of sound that finds you in your bad place, perhaps brooding over poor directorial choices, plucks you out of the muck, sits you up, and makes you forget all your misgivings. In the little Glimmerglass barn her voice was vast, hard to contain, stomach butterflying. Moreover, this Ariadne was a great opportunity to appreciate what a natural stage creature she is--she carried a significant portion of the comedy in the Opera, delivering hearty laughs with skillful execution of her assigned funny business (which this show really needs to balance all the faux laughs that come out of the extended troupe stuff).

Next up, AmTrag...

Friday, January 31, 2014


A bit late to the newest iteration of this old party (via Lisa Hirsch). There has been solid slagging all around, but after sufficient hole poking in the "classical music is dead" premise/arguments, the real question that emerges is: why do people love trolling classical music so much?

As much as some people would have you believe, the classical music story doesn't fit so neatly into a story of obsolescence and creative destruction. Classical music isn't the horse drawn buggy or chemical film development--its consumers are purchasing an experience from which they derive psychic satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, and sure, in some cases vindication of some pretty corrupt politics. The point is, culture lives in a world with the laws of supply and demand, but that doesn't mean its bound by the most reductive version of that story.

I mean, this seems like a pretty clear distinction, so why do we get "... is dead" articles instead of "state of ..." articles? I blame liberal self-loathing--the same kind of action that keeps David Brooks in business. The bait operates on two levels. The first is the classic case, the liberal who really doesn't care about classical music (which is fine!) but who occasionally cultivates their inner 17 (or 33) year old ready to throw anything overboard that hints at the establishment or the rich. The second is the actual classical music listener, who, conditioned by years of rightwing conditioning and centrist positioning, secretly questions the legitimacy of their latte-drinking and volvo driving preferences. Denigration of their pleasures and cultural touchstones is the price of living in a blue state after all, so just chuckle politely and take your medicine.

As far as clickbait goes, this can be annoying, but we're all mature enough to suffer a little angst while reading the internet. The bigger issue is that this imaginary debate sucks the air out of real coverage of a sector of the economy and the culture that actually matters to a healthy portion of the culture-interested classes of major cities. Slate readers are the kind of people that live in big cities, peruse the culture pages in their local papers, even cross paths with their music institutions once in a while--but instead of a letting a million Slate pitches blooming about what really makes orchestras sound good we get this tired garbage designed to get readers' goat.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Goerne and Eschenbach play Schubert

After kicking myself for two (?) years for having missed the Matthias Goerne/Christoph Eschenbach Winterreise in favor of choir rehearsal or some other garbage, this evening's rendition of Die Schone Mullerin offered some long-awaited relief. My only live experiences with Goerne thus far have been in the context of large scale symphony concerts. While no doubt rewarding given his always thoughtful singing, these outings have generally been marred by a pushy-shouty edge that just doesn't jibe with that molten voice one knows and loves from his recordings.

Rest assured, nothing of the sort was at issue in the Terrace Theater tonight. Goerne in Schubert, live, in an intimate space, is pure lieder-magic. That special velvety voice surprises again and again with its sound, but its never beauty for the sake of beauty. Goerne delivers these songs with a staggeringly complete level of emotional detail, each coming alive with such varied and specific feeling that the hour plus of music feels like it passes in 20 minutes. What's more, he digs deep into Schubert's complicated psychological portrayal, bringing out the miller's melancholy and passion, but his simmering resentment toward the object of his affection, too. Schubert draws an uncanny portrait of the wrathful "nice guy" that is all too familiar to internet users of today, and Goerne evokes this with disturbing clarity.

There will be some griping about Eschenbach as partner, as his contribution isn't that CD-quality smoothness we expect from recital pianists. He smudges stuff here and there, and some of the more challenging passages teeter dangerously close to breakdown. But I'd take what a lesser-rehearsed Eschenbach serves over the alternative every time. Together, he and Goerne deliver a level of emotional and dramatic consistency between voice and piano that one rarely gets to hear in recitals where the pianist is focused on being the dutiful accompanist. There was a vivid quality to this reading where we usually get one dimension, and that is due to Eschenbach's great musical intelligence and his constant search for those truthful moments that bring us closer to the emotional core of the piece.