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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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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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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