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

puccini and his world

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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Fear the singing undead

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What happens when you combine Little Shop of Horrors and German romantic opera? Something like the Komische Oper’s production of Der Vampyr, maybe, an unusual concoction of Grand Guignol and postmodern metatheater. Granted, this might not be quite what one would expect from Marschner, a German Romantic active a little after Weber. (Today Marschner is today probably best known for the prominent appearance of his Hans Heiling in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus.) But hey, why not?

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A fine bromance

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Thwack!

Thump!

Thunk!

That’s the sound of someone running directly into a wall in Barrie Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin production of Castor et Pollux. It seems to be their response to any kind of frustration, tragedy, or annoyance. Frustrated in love? Thunk! Brother dead? Thwack! Phébé thought of going to Hades first? Thump!

This is a very serious production, and as usual the KOB ensemble runs into those walls with impressive conviction. But after a while the effect begins to wear off.

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Cendrillon Goes Center Stage

 

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Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Komische Oper appears gentle and heartfelt, but underneath lies something tough. Set in a snake pit disguised as a fairy tale wonderland—that is, a ballet school—it’s a very clever concept that mostly works, and benefits from a winning cast.

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I tell you we must die

Mahagonny

If you’ve ever seen a production directed by Calixto Bieito, imagine what his take on Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny would look like. Congratulations! You are correct. If you haven’t seen any Bieito, imagine the Florida Man Twitter feed as rewritten by Michel Houellebecq. Take out all the gators, because local color isn’t on Bieito’s agenda. However, somebody’s face is perpetually in danger of being eaten.

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The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam

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Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is an opera that swerves between the apparently conventional and the obviously unsettling. As Dostoevskian antihero Herman crashes through 1790s St. Petersburg in search of the three cards that will always win, we can never quite tell what’s real and what’s the product of his feverish, anachronistic mind. And that’s before Stefan Herheim got around to directing it.

But now Herheim has, and on the way to Berlin for some work I went to Amsterdam to see it.

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