Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Xerxes at Glimmerglass

I wrote about the Glimmerglass production of Xerxes for Parterre.com:
The late-mid 1730s were transitional years for Handel, to put it nicely. At the dawn of his 50s, the composer was confronting financial troubles and an English public whose tastes were rapidly forsaking Italian opera in favor of English burlesque works on the model of The Beggar’s Opera (something called The Dragon of Wantley, in part a send-up of Handel’s Giustino, was the toast of the 1737 season). Though still dabbling in the opera game, Handel was already turning toward the oratorio form which would dominate his creative output for the rest of his life.

Read the whole thing here...

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Auguin out at WNO

As though we didn't have enough news to fret over, WNO announced today that Phillipe Auguin would make the move to "emeritus" status after next season, concluding his eight year run with the company.

Mind you, eight years is a respectable tenure, I don't know the details, and with only 5 shows a year one is bound to feel a bit shortchanged and disappointed when one likes the principal conductor in question. The more unsettling part of the article is how artistic director Francesca Zambello describes the break:

WNO has turned in solid work over the past 8 years (about the period I have been in DC), mostly commensurate with companies of similar import. There have been a lot of competent, well-cast, somewhat forgettable productions of the standard rep, some decided misfires, and some noble if usually unsuccessful delving into more adventurous work. But when one thinks of moments when this company punched above its weight and created work of a superior musical value, those moments, last year's Ring chief among them, are largely associated with Auguin's leadership. I have no idea how things have gone down behind the scenes, but for WNO's public and its critics, I think its safe to say Auguin has been synonymous with WNO at its best in recent years.

So it is jarring to find Zambello taking a lukewarm stance toward Auguin in her quotes above, suggesting his superior handling of the most ambitious works WNO has tangled with lately is different than what WNO is looking for in a music director. And more jarring still is what she offers as where the company is headed instead: American works and mini-commissions. WNO's efforts on these fronts are laudable enough but the company has shown little talent in picking contemporary American works in recent years, while its new commission program is nice but decidedly a side show for the holiday months while big traveling musicals take over the opera house. I'm sure all those stuffy WNO subscribers from McLean are going to love this new plan.

Anyhow, this does not feel like a serious comment, but rather a dodge papering over a less than amicable parting. What's worrying is what this unceremonious explanation says about the organization's investment in shoring up its musical future. Auguin's time with WNO has meant a lot to this organization and its audience and giving him the ol' "we've decided to go another direction" brush off betrays a worrying lack of appreciation for that fact.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Beczala at UDC

Belated review of Piotr Beczala's Vocal Arts DC from May...

The star tenor recital is perhaps a higher stakes affair than, say, the comparable baritone event. A safe program rooted in your stage repertoire is nearly guaranteed to score a success with your audience, so branching out into less familiar terrain is an especially gutsy move (while your low-voiced colleagues have carte blanche to program whatever spinach they see fit.)

In a recent recital presented by Vocal Arts DC, Piotr Beczala grasped the opportunity to do something far afield from his stage roles in the first half, presenting the entirety of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.”

Quickly dispelling any concerns that the big sound he deploys in the opera house would crush these delicate songs, Beczala assumed a surprisingly gentle and scaled down vocalism here, while preserving an appealing core of the warmth and ping. Indeed, Beczala only opened up into the more full throated we are used to seven pieces in, for the “Ich grolle nicht,” a thrilling touch for the restraint that came before.

This restraint came with something of a price in balance with Beczala’s collaborator at the piano, Martin Katz. Now, I like a robust piano contribution in a recital, especially in a work like this, where the riches of the accompaniment often rival the vocal line. But I’ll admit that preference was pushed to the limit here, with Katz boldly giving full (and glorious) voice to the piano despite Beczala’s light touch.  

Ultimately, Beczala’s “Dichterliebe” offered lots of thoughtful detail and earnest feeling in the moment, but these pieces probably need an additional layer of insight to stand apart, especially in moments like the dark imagery of the final song. I wouldn’t mind hearing a tasteful if predictable reading like Beczala’s again, but I’m not sure I would gain any deeper insight from it.

After the half, Beczala quickly made the audience forget any lingering equivocations about his Schumann, in songs by the late romantic Polish composer Mieczylaw Karlowicz.

Clearly relishing the chance to sing in his own tongue, serving the kind of throwback handsomeness that you and your grandma could easily bond over, Beczala inhabited the naked emotionalism of these songs with an infectious joy. These melancholy pieces (sample lyric: “Your words flowing toward me/Are like a prayer at the side of a coffin/They evoke shivers of death”) encourage a certain amount of indulgence, and Beczala complied, adding a hint of attractive sob in the voice or a shivery falsetto where appropriate, like the climax of the tender, gorgeously shaped final number, “I remember quiet, clear golden days.”

Heading south with a series of selections from Dvorak’s “Gypsy Melodies,” Beczala abandoned the smooth seduction of the Karlowicz set for a more rough-hewn sound in these character songs. Two of the lusty middle selections, “The string is taut” and “Wide sleeves and wide trousers,” were particularly extravagant, Beczala pushing a broad tone and delightfully reckless volume levels, but never crossing the line into ugly. The penultimate, unabashed tear-jerker “Songs my mother taught me” was a highlight as well.

Beczala returned to polished form for the final set, four surprisingly touching songs by Rachmaninoff. Like the Karlowicz selections these emotionally generous works seemed especially well-suited to his sensibilities, including a hushed, intimate reading of “Lilacs” and a thrillingly dramatic rendition of “Sing not to me, fair maiden.”

For his two encores (a treat for D.C., which seems hard pressed to muster more than a single courtesy bonus selection these days) Beczala indulged the audience with some Italian, starting with Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata.” While I certainly enjoy Beczala in his bread and butter rep, it was also a reminder that I sometimes find the sound of his Italian a little too broad and unidiomatic, a curious sensation after 40 minutes of his gloriously confident Polish, Czech, and Russian. By the irresistible second encore, Caruso barnburner “Core ‘ngrato (Catarì, Catarì),” this minor quibble had been thoroughly forgotten.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Butterfly at WNO

I wrote about WNO's Madame Butterfly for Parterre.com:
Opera warhorse overload can happen to the best of us, and going into Washington National Opera’s final presentation of the season, Madama Butterfly, I feared that I might be geisha’d out. My most recent encounter just six months ago (a Vienna State Opera production with Kristine Opolais) was well done but left me thoroughly cold, a sign that a personal moratorium on this particular chestnut might be in order. 

Read the whole thing here...

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fidelio at Washington Concert Opera

I wrote about WCO's Fidelio for Parterre:
While even committed opera enthusiasts can find Beethoven’s Fidelio a chore, a hardy few wonder why we can’t have more Fidelio. Washington Concert Opera maestro  had these completists in mind last weekend with a presentation of the original 1805 version of Fidelio, aka Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe.

Read the whole thing here...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Champion at WNO

I wrote about the premiere of Champion at WNO for Parterre:
Washington National Opera continued a focus on recent works this season with Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s 2013 opera Champion on the life of boxer Emile Griffith. Though many of the stumbling blocks one might expect are no doubt present in this first attempt at an opera from Blanchard, there is also much to appreciate in this ambitious work.

Read the whole thing here...

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dead Man Walking at WNO

Thoughts on WNO's new production of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking at Parterre...
In the program notes to Washington National Opera’s new production of Dead Man Walking, composer Jake Heggie notes that the premiere of a new opera was a “rare occasion” in 2000, when this piece first appeared in San Francisco. Since then, it has flourished in a way few contemporary operas have, garnering nearly 300 performances across the globe. But having finally seen it this past Saturday in DC, I’m afraid this work’s popularity may be a result of first-mover advantage more than anything else.  

Read the whole thing here...

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Götterdämmerung in Toronto

Shiloh Battlefield, Tennessee. Camera: Minolta Hi-matic. Film: Ilford HP5+.

Last Thursday we found ourselves in Toronto for the premiere of the final installment in Canadian Opera Company's Ring Cycle (aka, the COC Ring), featuring no less a momentous event than Christine Goerke's first outing as the Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde.

This long anticipated assumption is the culmination of perhaps THE major Brunnhilde assumption of the decade, and certainly the most consequential assumption by an American in some time. Goerke continues to offer an uncommonly beautiful take on this music, fully realizing the score at a level only available to a few singers today. Big climaxes were thrilling, especially a stunning Dawn Duet that elicited the rare intra-act Wagner applause, while Goerke's luscious, expressive middle register shone in stretches like the Waltraute scene and Immolation lead-up.

Beyond sheer vocal beauty, Goerke makes a strong dramatic impression too, introducing some compelling ideas about the character that are sure to mature over time. This is not the blazing Brunnhilde of a Nina Stemme, who plays the warrior princess (marvelously) as a furious powder keg, touched off by the sight of Siegfried and Gutrune. Goerke seems to be after a more vulnerable, wounded Brunnhilde, who comes to her anger at Siegfried reluctantly, from a place of emotional pain.

The first night performance seemed perhaps a bit cautious, as might be expected of a maiden Götterdämmerung, with careful navigation of the some of the trickier passages sometimes slowing down the overall momentum. Also, around the top of the middle register she sometimes goes into an unpleasant swallowed sound to get a note across, a tic we've heard before but seemed especially evident here. Quibbles aside though, y'all need to book your Chicago and Met Ring tickets ASAP. In 30 years North American Ring fans are going to fall into two buckets: the lucky ones who saw Goerke in her prime and the pitiable ones that missed out.

Andreas Schager's Siegfried was a welcome surprise and yet another reason to think that we are living in at the start of a mini-Siegfried renaissance. Schager has a huge, very attractive voice, indeed almost gratuitously loud at times, despite generally unsympathetic dynamics from the pit, and showed almost no wear by the climactic death scene, which was eminently secure and affecting. His characterization leans towards heroic doofus in a Siegfried Jerusalem vein, though again, that death scene brought out some unexpected layers.

Other cast highlights included mezzo Karen Cargill, turning in a ravishing, high drama Waltraute to balance Goerke's Brunnhild and making this scene one of the highlights of the evening. Estonian bass Ain Anger offered up a unexpectedly hot Hagen, backed by a vast, rangy instrument that conveyed the unhinged menace of the role, for instance in a reckless and terrifying call to the vassals. Norns n' Maidens were all very strong, with special recognition going to the wonderful contralto Lindsay Amman, reprising her role from the DC Ring.

COC maestro Johannes Debus offered a strong hand and some persuasive ideas about the score, including as a brutal, ecstatic Siegfried Funeral March, though speedy tempi could cross the line from energetic to glib at times. At least on opening night, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra wasn't always prepared to execute on Debus' ideas cleanly. Strings generally shone but even with the requisite Ring cycle handicap, the brass committed too many pitchiness and entry flub sins for comfort. Hopefully as the run goes on the polish level will improve and do justice to Debus' dynamic approach.

As for the production, the COC Ring shares a common designer but each installment has been given a different director, here Tim Albery. The modern dress, minimalist design can deliver some arresting images, such as the dreamlike setting for Brunnhilde's mountaintop, set on the dark, largely bare stage, punctuated by the odd light and prop that seems to float in the ether. But the production isn't really inventive or strict enough to keep this aesthetic interesting. For instance, the following Gibichung palace just looks like a basic sparsely furnished living room that might be found in any production. While strong direction might have made up for this, Albery serves up an exceedingly conventional, undistinguished Gibichung scene. Say what you will about Zambello, modern dress isn't just a neutral aesthetic in her Ring, but a component of a richly layered (if not always advisable) interpretation.

More successful moments included the Siegfried death scene mentioned above, as well as Gunther/Siegfried's taking of Brunnhilde. Gunther, in suit and trenchcoat, paces deliberately around Brunnhilde and her modest dining table throughout most of the scene before suddenly exploding in violence. Tapping contemporary images of home invasion and domestic violence, Albery powerfully illustrates the terror and violation inherent in this scene.

Unfortunately the finale, in which the residents of Gibichungville place the shattered pieces of a model Vahalla around the stage, slowly walk to the front of the stage, then slowly walk to the back of the stage, is just terribly boring. You don't have to have spectacle for the end of the Ring but if you're not ready to accompany the end of the Gods with some minimally credible stage spectacle, then you better have a good reason why not.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

American Opera Initiative at WNO

I reviewed WNO's American Opera Initiative for Parterre:
Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, now in its 5th year, keeps the opera flame alight at the Kennedy Center during the long winter stretch between mainstage WNO productions. With four short works on offer over the course of two nights, it is also a welcome chance to peruse how a variety of young composers are addressing the challenges of contemporary opera.
Read the whole thing here...

WNO Announces

Mt. Pleasant. Camera: Pentax Spotmatic. Film: Portra400.
After something of a post-Ring cigarette break of a season this year, WNO teased a more ambitious 17-18 lineup this past Monday in a presentation at the Kennedy Center. Playing percentages is sort of silly with only 5 shows, but the trend is generally more Italian red meat after this year's heavy investment (2 out of 5 shows) in contemporary works. Strong casting throughout the year keeps the overall interest level high.

The opener is Francesca Zambello's "graffiti Aida" production that premiered in San Francisco this year. I'll have to go back and read the reactions to the production, but the takeaway here is some especially deep personnel across both A and B casts. Aida is shared by Tamara Wilson and Amber Wagner, Amneris is shared by Ekaterina Semenchuk and Marina Prudenskaya (these are new to me), and Radames is shared between Yonghoon Lee and Carl Tanner. Gordon Hawkins shows up as Amonsaro.

Next up is Handel's Alcina, a rare baroque foray for WNO. Casting is intriguing again, with Angela Meade returning after her celebrated turn in Norma a few years back, plus Ying Fang, Elizabeth DeShong, and Daniela Mack. The location will be the more intimate confines of the Eisenhower theater, a wise choice for Handel. This is a new production by theater director Anne Bogart, who also did that Norma for WNO, which was nondescript but pleasant enough.

The big project for the year is a new production of Don Carlo (with Philadelphia and Minnesota) conducted by Phillipe Auguin and featuring a very badass cast of mostly young singers including Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, Russell Thomas, and Eric Owens. The one-off cover (?) performance is no slouch either with Latonia Moore, Domingo Cafritz young artist MVP Daryl Freedman, and Rafael Davila for one night only. Sorry Carloheads, no word on cuts/language in the press release...

And then, to fill whatever budget hole that new Don Carlo dug, we get a Barber of Seville production. So, I don't like Barber that much. If I had the power to take one uber-chestnut that is produced constantly and bump it down to, say, Idomeneo frequency, I'm definitely going to say Barber. Directors aren't very good at making 19th century farce actually funny not just "fake laughing at opera" funny. Audiences enjoy the music in a Tom Petty's greatest hits way, not a meaningful way.

But that's just me. There are some bright spots in the staffing: sounds like there might be an interesting American debut (Andrey Zhilkovsky), Isabel Leonard sings Rosina, bass Wei Wu (who has made a strong impression in the young artist program) sings Dr. Bartolo, and we get Maestro Maurizio Benini making his WNO debut.

The season closing musical is back again, this time Candide, a tie-in with the KC-wide Bernstein centenary jamboree. Yes, it hurts a bit to give up one of only 5 slots to a musical production which is always a bit of a dicey artistic proposition. I'm also always skeptical at whether these musicals really pack the house more than a regular offering would. But of anything in the musical realm Candide of course feels most at home in the opera house, and I actually have never seen the whole thing, so I guess that's okay.

Season extras are a family holiday-time production of The Little Prince, revived from a few years back, and the annual American Opera Initiative festival, notably headlined by "Breaking the Waves" team Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek.