Don’t Ash, Don’t Tell

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You will only see select parts of this from the Family Circle.

All I wanted was to see a production of Guillaume Tell which didn’t become a major news event. But I went yesterday, and the performance ended without Act IV but with me giving interviews to both the Times and the AP.

The interruption and eventual cancellation was caused by, it turns out, an audience member scattering a late friend’s ashes into the orchestra pit. It was, obviously, utterly bizarre and ill-advised. You have to be a complete idiot not to realize that this was going to end with a counter-terrorism unit surrounding the besmirched timpani and an awful lot of your fellow opera fans justifiably angered by your idiocy. But opera fans often pride themselves for their distance from the modern world, and this is such a typical opera fan gesture: ridiculous, morbid, sincere, and anachronistic. So much of opera is about something that is lost, and grief is not reasonable.

So I have only three acts of Guillaume Tell to write about. This is disappointing. I didn’t get to hear the big tenor number or the final chorus, two of the best parts of the opera, and it’s highly unlikely that I will be able to return to the Met for another go at it. So let’s do this now. (Also, I missed Tristan und Isolde due to my Amtrak train running over two hours late. This season has been terrific so far!) But this production has a really great cast!

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Tristan der Held

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I’m not going to be at the Met’s new production of Tristan und Isolde until October 8, but I talked to the Met’s Tristan, Stuart Skelton, and wrote about the history of the Heldentenor in today’s New York Times:

A few months after the premiere performances of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” the first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, fell ill. As he died, he reportedly began to sing fragments of his character’s prolonged death scene. Wagner, struck with guilt, wrote: “My Tristan! My beloved! I drove you to the abyss.”

It’s unclear exactly what killed Schnorr von Carolsfeld, but the story that the opera did him in has persisted for a reason.

You can read the whole article here, which includes a Times critic who thought Tristan was “relatively easy work,” Stuart Skelton’s tips for Tristan newcomers, and color commentary from Speight Jenkins and Brian Zeger.

I’ll be back later this week with a review of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Der Rosenkavalier. Yes, I’ve been spending a lot of time driving to Boston and back.

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She sings for herself

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On Friday, Boston beheld the East Coast debut of Calixto Bieito, and Boston giggled nervously.

That’s right, the Boston Lyric Opera held an opening night gala marking the company’s return to the Boston Opera House, featuring Skandalregisseur Calixto Bieito’s modernized, de-romanticized, decidedly un-gala-like production of Carmen, and the evening dress audience somehow survived to tell the tale, albeit with an enormous amount of awkward tittering at one-liners like “Your mother is dying!” As Bieito goes, it’s pretty mild stuff. With listless conducting and some subpar singing, this evening was more tepid than shocking. The performance was not, however, without its moments.

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Boris Godunov 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Gil Rose, Aleš Briscein and Olga Jelínková Photo by Kathy Wittman
Gil Rose, Aleš Briscein and Olga Jelínková Photo by Kathy Wittman

As a concept, Dvořák’s opera Dimitrij is hard to beat. Its libretto is a sequel to another opera, Boris Godunov, and its score is by a composer whose one popular opera is widely beloved (at least by me) and thus seems to promise hidden riches. Also, it is a four-act almost-grand opera in Czech which premiered in 1882, which is a) really, really late for grand opera and b) I’m guessing not many of us have seen a Czech grand opera. That’s a lot of intriguing novelty! Also, Dvořák apparently never heard Musorgsky’s opera and his musical style is, well, very different.

Thanks to Odyssey Opera in Boston, I am deprived of Czech grand opera, and Dimitrij, no longer. This was its Boston premiere, and Odyssey Opera’s concert performance in Jordan Hall last Friday was more than legit. This is a small company, and I give them a lot of credit for taking a chance and putting on a convincing performance of a totally unknown and huge opera (four hours in Czech with a big chorus and orchestra!) when they could have done another Traviata. I enjoyed this evening far more than my extreme delay in reviewing it may imply.

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The Butterfly of Pittsfield

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There are a lot of great things about living in western Massachusetts, but a plethora of places to see live opera is not one of them. The new Berkshire Opera Festival, based in Pittsfield, is trying to change that. Their ambitious and professional production of Madama Butterfly, which opened on Saturday, suggests that their arrival is a welcome one.

The surprisingly beautiful Colonial Theatre seats 760 and is acoustically excellently suited for this endeavor (it was formerly a touring theater for acts ranging from Sarah Bernhardt to the Ziegfeld Follies). Company General Director Jonathon Loy’s production begins with an extremely traditional Act 1, full of kimonos and screens, belied only by the stark, flat surfaces of Stephen Dobay’s set. Loy and Dobay have gift for tableaus, and use the scrims in the screens and some falling flower petals to beautiful effect. It is, visually, a handsome and polished production. The backdrop hints at mid-century modernism, which comes to the foreground in Act 2. Butterfly sheds her elaborate geisha-wear in favor of a Western-style suit and hairstyle, though Suzuki has not followed her. (The costumes are by Charles Caine.) This shows her dedication to Pinkerton and to American culture in vivid fashion, but I think the political angle is somewhat unexamined? Japanese-American relations in the 1960s were, to say the least, different from those in the original setting of 1904. The production never goes there and it’s an uncomfortable hole. This isn’t a production with politics on its mind, though; Loy’s direction is best in the detailed, careful staging of the dramatic scenes such as the love duet and the Sharpless-Butterfly scene in Act 2.

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As Cio-Cio-San, soprano Inna Los started off sounding dry, but she marshaled her resources for a solid “Un bel dì,” revealing a plangent middle range. Her experience in the role is obvious, and most importantly she knows how to hit the emotional high points. Her Butterfly grows over the course of the evening to eventually show intense and steely determination. But she didn’t always seem to be in the same place as the rest of the cast. While the rest acted more or less naturalistically, Los often relied highly stylized vocabulary of “Japanese” gestures and exaggerated reactions, tending to emphasize Cio-Cio San’s childlike naiveté. This approaches racial caricature, and while you could argue that Cio-Cio-San should act differently from everyone else, I thought it seemed awkwardly mannered (I would rather see Cio-Cio-San as a human than as a figment of an imagined Japanese-ness). She tended to drop the schtick for the big moments, though, and she was good enough there that I wish she had done so for the whole opera.

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As Pinkerton, Jason Slayden boasted a sweet and pleasant lyric tenor with a fast, fluttering vibrato. While the sound cut through the orchestra easily and filled this relatively small theater, he lacked the heft ideal for the climactic moments of “Dovunque al mondo” and sounded more like an Alfredo or a Don Ottavio at this point. As Pinkertons go he was unusually withdrawn and swagger-less (acting primarily with his eyebrows), and in the love duet, Butterfly interestingly took the lead.

The supporting roles might have been better cast than the leads, actually: Weston Hurt made a resonant, sensitive Sharpless and Sarah Larsen as Suzuki showed a somewhat metallic mezzo and precise musicianship. The most surprising casting was comprimario all-stars Eduardo Valdes as an animated and sleay Goro and John Cheek in an authoritative cameo as the Bonze.

Despite this strong casting, one area where the company’s small size showed is the orchestra. Artistic Director Brian Garman paced and balanced the score well, though I could have used more dynamic contrasts. The company used an authorized reduced orchestration, but the string sections were very small (six first violins, four seconds, four violas, only three cellos) and the playing was somewhat scattered. This is a very tough score for a small company and sometimes you could tell. The small chorus, however, sounded excellent.

But it was great to see such an enthusiastic and local audience out to see opera in this appropriately intimate theater. Hopefully the company will be there for years to come. Meanwhile, there are two more performances of Butterfly, on Tuesday and Friday.

If you go, be sure to check out this nifty antique lighting board in the lobby!

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Also, I have to note the ad on the back of my Butterfly program. Exotic vacation!:

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Some more production photos (all production photos copyright Ken Howard):

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The Met’s 2016-17 season by the numbers

Around a year ago I used pie charts to analyze the Met’s 2015-16 programming, revealing that what appeared to be a very Donizetti-heavy season was actually a very heavy Donizetti and Puccini season. This was interesting and popular so I’ve done it again for 2016-17.

This season is still largely made up of big canonic Met favorites, almost all from the nineteenth century, but this time they’re spread out significantly more evenly across languages, composers, and styles. Except for Verdi. Can you guess what happened to Verdi!!!!?????

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Puccini and His World

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The Bard Music Festival (at Bard College, which is on the Hudson River well north of New York but south of Albany) starts this weekend and this year focuses on Puccini. As the festival’s introduction put it, Puccini is a composer whose enormous popularity with audiences today tends to efface his controversial past:

Critics derided Puccini for not being Italian enough. He was accused of courting vulgarity and exploiting cheap sentimentality. He was seen as facile and lazy. He failed, with the possible exception of Fanciulla, to match the profundity and subtlety of Verdi, the grandeur of Wagner, and the dramatic virtuosity of Richard Strauss. Even Toscanini, with whom Puccini quarreled despite their closeness, harbored serious reservations. After Puccini’s death, this criticism blossomed into a tradition of intellectual and academic snobbery marked by condescension and neglect.

At the heart of this so-called Puccini problem rests the shifting place of musical culture in the 20th century. Puccini rose to fame as opera struggled, with declining success after 1918, to maintain its preeminence as a cultural and political instrument in the face of the advent of recorded sound, the popularity of photography, motorboats, automobiles (three of Puccini’s obsessions), and, most of all, film. Though Puccini succeeded where others failed, his success was ascribed to various theories of the decline of culture and standards of taste.

As usual the festival’s concerts are an overwhelming montage of Puccini’s music along with that of his contemporaries and successors. Operas include Il tabarro, La Navarraise, Le villi, and the Busoni Turandot as well as excerpts from many more. If you can’t make it in person you can read the whole program book online (I wrote the program note for Program Five, which is Le villi and La Navarraise).

Also as usual, the festival is accompanied by an edited volume of essays exploring Puccini and his legacy, published by Princeton University Press. You can read Emanuele Senici’s introduction to the volume here. If you get the whole thing you can read my account of the composition and initial reception of Puccini’s La rondine, a strange story in which Franz Lehár figures far more prominently than you may suspect.

The festival also figured in a recent Slate article about whether a certain presidential candidate’s favorite aria is politically apt. I think the last scene of Turandot is probably extremely apt but that this presidential candidate probably prefers Phantom of the Opera.

I’ll be at the festival this weekend but I won’t be reviewing it here because…. it seems like a lot of conflict of interest. I already went to see Bard’s production of Mascagni’s Iris last week, which is an extremely weird opera well reviewed by others. If you’d like to listen to Mascagni’s bizarre mix of Symbolism and verismo exploitation for yourself, you can hear no less than Sonya Yoncheva sing in on this recent broadcast from Montepellier (not Bard).

Next summer at Bard: Chopin!

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Summer opera on the internets

alcina tvIf you’re stuck at home and don’t want to go see caped crusaders blow stuff up, here’s a roundup of some opera things available free on the internet.

As for not on the internet stuff, I will be going to Bard later this week to see Mascagni’s Iris, the opera that makes Butterfly look culturally sensitive.

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When I was young and charming, I practiced baby-farming

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Conventional wisdom may suggest that in a duel between a stage director and the plot of Il trovatore, the director is never going to win. This libretto is, er, complicated, and it belongs to a kind of lurid sensationalism that we often assume has nothing under its surface shock and awe. So the most we dare wish for is mere comprehensibility, hence pro forma efforts like David McVicar’s Met production. I don’t mind that production that much, it does what it has to do, but it sets a fairly low bar.

That’s not the only option, though. La Monnaie had a great Tcherniakov production a few years back that took the plot’s complexity not as an insurmountable problem but rather as its subject, becoming a bunch of people in a room experiencing a claustrophobic series of flashbacks. And there was that Olivier Py job in Munich a few years ago, which I saw only on a technically challenged internet stream and thus believe I can only describe as batshit crazy. And there are more.

And now, I hoped, we would have David Bösch’s at the Royal Opera House too. We did, but we also didn’t.

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Dirt on my shoes, moss on my dreams

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Note: all these photos show an earlier cast (different Tatiana and Onegin)

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (AKA Евге́ний Оне́гин, Yevgeny Onegin, Evgeny Onegin, Yevgeniy Onegin, Jewgeni Onegin, etc.) is subtitled “lyric scenes.” Barrie Kosky’s striking Komische Oper production is similarly modest, ambiguous of time and place. It revolves around a few striking images and keeps the focus, for better or worse, on the characters.

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