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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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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