What I did on my summer vacation

I wrote about opera and modern life in Saturday’s New York Times:

Beneath the artifice, the virtuosic singing and the foreign languages, opera’s stories are deeply familiar: tales of love, loss and duty that anyone could identify with. But lately, there’s another way that opera has been recognizable to many in its audiences: its dissatisfaction with the state of the world.

During a recent operagoing trip to Europe, I was struck not by the extent to which productions were placed in the present — contemporary settings are routine there to an extent they are not in the United States — but by the degree to which they were critical of the universes they portrayed. They were, above all, savage and skeptical, and therefore felt very much of our moment.

You can read the whole thing here.

The above also constitutes my review of Lohengrin in Zürich. To add a few more review-y things: it’s hard to judge in the Opernhaus Zürich, which is approximately the size of a two-car garage, but Rachel Willis-Sørensen sounds like a genuine jugendlich-dramatischer Sopran, which is always exciting. She’s only in her early thirties and it will be exciting to see where her voice goes. Anna Smirnova was a big and blowsy Ortrud whose dramatic highlight was a point at which she kicked a bunch of bouquets off tables like an aggressively untrained soccer player. Finally, this a performance found Fabio Luisi doing Peak Luisi (delicate, exquisite) and I found the production involving and admirable if not very thrilling.

Hopefully I will soon be able to very belatedly complete my review of Die Frau ohne Schatten in Munich (which currently is a draft and a lot of notes), mostly because the conducting was extremely good.

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Das Land des Lächelns in Zurich

I went to Zürich and I talked to director Andreas Homoki about his production of Franz Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns. My article is in this week’s issue of VAN.

In Franz Lehár’s 1929 operetta “Das Land des Lächelns,” a Viennese lady, Lisa, loves a Chinese diplomat, Sou-Chong. She follows him back to China and marries him, only for them to ultimately be forced apart by Chinese custom. In 1929, this was a plea for tolerance by its two Jewish librettists. But today, its depiction of a cruel, exotic China gives us pause. Watching the Opernhaus Zürich’s new production, I was struck by a piece whose intentions were trapped within the limitations of its own perspective.

“It’s not a piece about China. It’s about a woman in an alien environment which draws her husband away from her,” said Andreas Homoki, who directed the production and is also the general director of the Opernhaus Zürich, in a recent interview.  Compared to many directors, the genial Homoki is specific and practical when discussing his work. “It could be anything, could be Arab, could be Aboriginal, but it’s China because China was fashionable at the time.”

Read the whole thing here. I was happy to work with the editors of VAN (and their exceptionally snazzy design)!

I didn’t write the article as a review, so I would like to add here: Piotr Beczala sounded terrific as Sou-Chong, the best he’s sounded in a while and probably the best Sou-Chong since Nicolai Gedda. Julia Kleiter was stylish and fun. And the reserved Fabio Luisi was disconcertingly gleeful. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen his hair become disheveled, something I did not believe to be possible.

Photo copyright Toni Suter

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Carmen and Rake’s Progress in Aix

I went to the Aix Festival and covered it for the New York Times. First I reviewed an outstanding production of Carmen:

At the beginning of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s remarkable new production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Aix Festival here, the audience is warned that “tonight’s performance contains scenes that may seem like actual danger. Please be aware that they are part of the show.”

Such a disclaimer may be wise reassurance in these jittery times. But it is also a welcome promise: This daring Russian director plans to find some particularly modern anxiety in a work that has become dulled by overexposure.

Boldly rewriting the opera’s dialogue to accommodate his concept, Mr. Tcherniakov presents “Carmen” as a large-scale role-play, a novel bit of psychotherapy for a numb modern man.

You can read it here.

I also tried to get a whole lot of social media slang through the editorial process in my review of The Rake’s Progress (mostly successfully!):

I wish I had money,” sings Tom Rakewell, the aimless protagonist of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” which opened on Wednesday at the Aix Festival here. A satire of quests for fame and fortune, the piece seems in this staging more modern than ever. Many of its characters are, as the kids say, thirsty — desperately seeking the instant celebrity of our internet age.

You can read the full review here.

Photo copyright Patrick Berger

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Die Gezeichneten in Munich

Upon the premiere of Die Gezeichneten in 1918, Franz Schreker was hailed as the heir apparent of German opera. He was compared favorably to Strauss; according to him, in a sarcastically self-aggrandizing text read at the beginning of Act 3 in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of this opera, he was “the only true heir to Wagner.” That was, alas, the high point of his career and in 1934 he died of a stroke shortly after been declared “degenerate” by the Nazis. Today he lives at the margins of the repertory, representing an extreme of a kind of overheated yet philosophical early twentieth-century opera that makes Salome look like The Magic Flute. A ticket to a Schreker opera guarantees a trip through sin, redemption, brothels, transcendence, the mind of the artist, degradation, and more orgiastic musical depictions of a sunrise than all the recordings of Zarathustra ever made put together. It’s great it if you have the orchestra for it, but once every few years seems about right.

The Bayerische Staatsoper does have the orchestra for it, as well as a new production by Krzysztof Warlikowski that, while not exactly lucid, gets at the abstract issues in the middle of this piece.

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She’s on a boat

On Tuesday I went back to my old stomping ground, the Wiener Staatsoper, a return not particularly highly anticipated by me nor, I assume, by anyone else. With the Staatsoper you roll your dice and you take your chances—even the most formidable casts can be undone here by a total lack of rehearsal. But sometimes you get lucky (and not always at the performances with all the famous people). And despite having only one shot, this time I did.  This dark, dreamy Pelléas, a “new” production by Marco Arturo Marelli, is surprisingly worth seeing.

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Moor or less

Verdi’s Otello doesn’t have the big, underlined earworms of his earlier work. Both the music and plot move quickly and themes seem to vanish before you can grasp onto them. When a performance really works—and that isn’t very often—it all swirls into a kind of fateful vortex.

The Royal Opera House’s highly anticipated new Otello, featuring the internet’s favorite and also probably least favorite tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in his role debut, isn’t quite that vortex. It’s a slightly disorganized storm, uneven and at times a little rote. But mixed in are some things that are really, really good.

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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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