Der Rosenkavalier at the Met

That’s no silver rose, that’s a whole silver rose shrub.

The Met’s new Rosenkavalier is a pleasant surprise. It’s good and you should see it, but maybe not for the reasons you expect.

While much heralded as Renée Fleming’s farewell to the operatic stage, she’s not its primary attraction. She’s fine and deserves a nice send-off for a distinguished career, but she is too pallid to be this production’s star. Yet the Met has, seemingly accidentally, ended up with something way more interesting and harder to achieve than a Marschallin showcase. Robert Carsen’s production is a creative and coherent interpretation of a piece which is often more exhumed than directed, and the Met has found something I didn’t even know existed: Günther Groissböck’s actually good take on Baron Ochs.

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Met to launch Expanded Operatic Universe

Opera companies tend to rely on a small canon of classic works to fill seats. But the problem, according to Met Opera general director Peter Gelb, is that too few operas lead audiences to other operas. Today he announced that he has found a solution. Taking a cue from superhero movies, Gelb intends to build next season into an “expanded operatic universe,” in which audiences will be able to follow characters from one production to the next. “This will let us see some familiar works in wholly new, yet entirely picturesque and literally represented, ways!”

Next season’s “cycle” will begin in Switzerland. After perky lass Marie enjoys an upbringing with some soldiers, her beloved Tonio dies in action and she reunites with her long-lost father, Miller, who tells her that her real name is Luisa. She then falls in love with another tenor, introduced as Carlo but really named Rodolfo, only to become embroiled in a love triangle which leads to her death.

In a spin-off prequel, we learn that Rodolfo’s pseudonym of “Carlo” actually was his real name: he had moved to Tyrol after being sucked into a tomb by his grandfather, the former Holy Roman Emperor. In a sequel, we discover his later history as “Rodolfo.” Heartbroken at the loss of Luisa, he begins to write poetry and moves to Paris, where he falls in love with a girl named Mimì. After many years and a trip downward vocally, Rodolfo returns to Switzerland, where he encounters a girl named Amina who reminds him of Luisa.

Meanwhile, Rodolfo’s bride, Federica, is left alone, her reputation destroyed. She decides that she will follow Luisa’s example and make her home with a group of soldiers, getting a snare drum, calling herself a gypsy, and using the rataplan skills she learned from Luisa. Then things begin to get really complicated. At one point she thinks she saw Luisa hiding out in a cave, but she isn’t 100% sure. Many years pass and the former Federica eventually wanders through Spain, where she is eventually discovered casting a spell over a very important baby’s cradle and is burned to death as a witch.

The Switzerland portions will be directed by Bartlett Sher, Michael Mayer will handle the Parisian portions (which are rumored to be the basis of next year’s courtesan-focused adventures), and David McVicar will run the Preziosilla arc. The most Switzerland-associated maestro at the Met, Fabio Luisi, will not be involved.

The cycle’s intricacy will doubtlessly be appreciated by notoriously detail-oriented opera fans. There is already a comment thread on Parterre devoted to determining Federica’s Fach and another attempting to determine Marie’s exact age and debating what her boots should look like. Fans will be able to discuss these issues in more detail at the upcoming Metcon.

This reporter asked if the cycle was ever going to make it to Germany and/or to mythological realms but it seems that those properties are owned by another opera house.

Previously:

Norman Lebrecht to host Fox News show

Met announces new initiatives

Startup promises to disrupt opera

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On the Met’s 2017-18 season, or, free yourself

The Met announced their 2017-18 season last week to, on my internets at least, general yawning. Let’s take a look.

The new productions are haunted by compromise. We know that the opening night Norma was going to be Anna Netrebko, but she reconsidered and it went to Sondra Radvanovsky, who has already sung the role at the Met and thus lacks much opening night novelty. Somehow I doubt we can expect much novelty from David McVicar’s production, either. (I have written about McVicar at the Met here. Short version: he can be an interesting director, but rarely is one at the Met.)

Most notably from my perspective, a planned new production of La forza del destino by Calixto Bieito was canceled due to financial concerns. I can’t imagine this would have gone over too well (I recently witnessed Bieito’s East Coast debut and it was not great), and the word from London, where the intended co-production already premiered at the English National Opera, was that it wasn’t the director’s best work. But it at least would have been an event. Instead we get a bunch of performances of the Verdi Requiem, which is a sorry excuse.

Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel is the only genuinely exciting new production, and might even arrive the same season as the tenuously planned new Sondheim musical on the same subject. (Here’s hoping!) It also has the distinction of only having been performed in two opera houses before the Met. The other new productions are old news. Cendrillon is a lovely piece but we’re getting it via a very well traveled and DVDed Laurent Pelly production. (The Met: taking the “new” out of “new production.”)

The Phelim McDermott Così was at the ENO back in 2014 and features the surprising casting of Kelli O’Hara as Despina, of which I am skeptical (directorial choice is odd too, but who knows? what was this one like in London? why is everything always from London?). Finally, there’s a Tosca that is actually new but is also McVicar and I am inclined to agree with La Cieca’s take on it. If the promised Kaufmann/Terfel duo actually materializes, though, it at least has the potential to be… as exciting as it was when I last saw them in it. At the Met. In 2010. Anna Netrebko sings the title role in April, replacing Opolais, which could be something to see.

The revivals contain some much more interesting prospects, including a Vogt/Herlitzius Parsifal that I will surely write an excessively long blog post about and maybe go see more times than is reasonable, Angela Meade and Javier Camarena in an old production of Semiramide, Sonya Yoncheva and Piotr Beczala in Luisa Miller, and Yannick N-S conducting Elektra with Christine Goerke. The Chéreau production and Goerke will be an interesting combination, something I wrote a little about when it premiered with Nina Stemme last year. If you’re into Thaïs, and I confess I am not, Ailyn Pérez and Gerald Finley are some quality casting.

I will pie chart later but without breaking out Excel I can say that there isn’t a single opera in a Slavic language next season and that is disappointing.

Now for the critical take: this season was met with a general gnashing of teeth and I certainly agree with that. It is pared-down, safe, and we know of interesting things that were supposed to happen but didn’t make it. But I am slightly exhausted by all the hot takes noting that the Met is an antiquated institution. I mean, you’re just figuring this out? You only noticed this season that the Met doesn’t program many female composers? I don’t think that public shaming, no matter how big or well-populated your soapbox, is actually going to do anything to change this.

Two things: first, the problem is structural. The Met is funded by a donor base that in general would not have liked a Bieito Forza and doesn’t much care about the underrepresentation of anyone who isn’t a white man. It needs donors. It is a very large theater, it operates in a way that is very expensive, and if you don’t change these basic things you aren’t going to get that all-Schreker season that you long for. Since the Met is facing increasing financial challenges and the NEA, small beans that it is, is probably going to dissolve by lunchtime tomorrow, I don’t think this is going to change anytime soon.

Second: the Met isn’t all of opera. It does a good job of marketing itself as such and lots of people buy the hype. Its vast media empire—carried out at the multiplex at your local mall, which often seems like all too appropriate a setting—positions it as The Greatest Opera on Earth. But if you decide it isn’t what you want out of opera, take your attention and your audience support elsewhere! Before you state the obvious I admit that I am not the best example here, because I do write about the Met a lot, and that has to do partly with its prominence (it gets me teh clicks) and my love of singing. If you really want to hear big time, international voices in the northeast US, the Met is necessary.

But there is other opera that is different and don’t forget that. I try to get out of the US when I can because as y’all know I also love Regietheater and that means Europe. But there’s lots more going on in the US too. Take a look at Opera Philadelphia, which I enjoyed a lot when I lived there a few years ago. Philadelphia has a reputation of being “not an opera town” but their season, while much shorter than the Met’s, is way more interesting. New opera is happening everywhere, and you’re usually a lot closer to the action than the Family Circle. Recent conservatory grads are putting on Mercadante in an old pickle factory or whatever it is that is going on in Brooklyn. Go to the Prototype Festival! (Again, I’m sorry I didn’t, but the timing didn’t work for me. I’m going to try to be better about this myself. Writing scathing Met reviews is kind of satisfying, but I may be part of the problem here.)

So write your hot takes and tweets about the Met if you want, and you aren’t wrong, but remember that the Met isn’t all of opera unless you let it be.

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Běda, Rusalka, běda (Poor Rusalka)

I’ve been on a blogcation for reasons related to work, as well as some concern that the world will not in fact exist in a few weeks so why am I writing about Bellini? Also, the opportunity to avoid both Gounod and Bartlett Sher at the same time was a proposition too efficient to resist. But as longtime readers may know, if a new production of Rusalka isn’t going to get me back, nothing is going to get me back. I’m back! Alas, this new Met Rusalka is not good.

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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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