Don’t Ash, Don’t Tell

tell5
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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Elektra at the Met

elektra5

The late Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra is surely the highlight of this season at the Met. We’ve known that it was going to be for a while. It arrives a known quantity; acclaimed from its European performances, the fame of its director and cast, and its DVD. There’s something off about a “new production” which has already been available on video for a year and a half and whose director died in 2013.

Yet I suspect this is how the Met prefers it. As Peter Gelb stated repeatedly in a brief interview during the Manon Lescaut HD broadcast, the Met is in the masterpiece business (he even used this descriptor when discussing new opera, which is a whole different problem). When we roll theater and production into the operatic experience, as Gelb has tried to do, this makes new productions tricky to sell: though new, they also have to embody some of that timeless masterpiece solidity. And importing a brand-name, already-acclaimed Masterpiece from somewhere else (this Elektra is from Aix-en-Provence), is simpler than forging your own from scratch. Lest you think I’m spending too much time thinking about what is essentially marketing copy, let me remind you that this discourse shapes the way much of the Met’s audience thinks and talks about opera (I hear it from students all the time).

It’s not that Chéreau, surely one of the most important and influential directors of opera of the past 50 years, doesn’t deserve honorifics or a respectful tribute. It’s that “masterpiece” is a blunt instrument primarily used to confer status. When you’re discussing Elektra, a shabby little shocker with lurid orchestral colors and bodies that are rotting from the inside, that sacred cultural capital becomes even stranger.

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Manon Lescaut at the Met

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut has to be one of the least sympathetic leading ladies in opera: insufficiently malevolent for a villain, too shallow and materialistic to be a heroine (her escape from her rich “patron” is foiled because she refuses to leave without her jewels, jewels she is inexplicably slow at gathering up), and too passive to be an interesting mix of the two. That doesn’t mean her story isn’t worth following, though. She’s a perfect storm of many of the nineteenth century’s least appealing ideas about women and Puccini’s score is loaded with enough high octane drama to keep your attention. With the right production and cast, it can work! Unfortunately the Met’s tepid, confusing new production doesn’t pull it off.

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Pearls fished

Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) premiered in Paris in 1863, a full decade before Carmen. Its exotic Indian subcontinent plot, complete with undulating melismas, a chaste coloratura priestess and a disapproving elder priest, inevitably recalls another opera that premiered in Paris exactly twenty years later, Léo Delibes’s Lakmé (which I saw at Opera Holland Park last summer).

For modern listeners, Lakmé and Pearl Fishers have another thing in common: they’re both somewhat obscure operas with one or two extremely popular hit numbers. For Lakmé, it’s the Bell Song and Flower Duet, for Pearl Fishers it’s the tenor-baritone duet in which two reunited buddies–one a baritone head pearl fisher, the other a tenor of vague provenance–displace any more-than-buddy feelings by singing about a beautiful, absent woman (seriously, this duet occupies Don Carlo/Posa territory of subtext).

Bizet obviously knew that he found the big hit with this duet. Its main theme is associated with absent lady Léila, who is the female part of the plot’s love triangle and isn’t absent for much longer (like Mr. Tenor in the beginning of this opera, people in The Pearl Fishers have a way of showing up exactly when they are required). This association means we get to hear it plenty more times, though usually in the orchestra. You get your money’s worth with that duet.

Unfortunately in the rest of the opera you can see why the Met hasn’t performed this one for a century. The Met’s new production showcases a score with many beautiful moments beyond the duet, but the opera itself comes across as clunky and without any emotional weight. Penny Woolcock’s production is better than I expected having read its London reviews (it was first performed at the English National Opera several years ago), but it and a somewhat mismatched cast don’t really make a convincing argument for this piece. There are worse ways to pass an evening, but it’s underwhelming. Here, I’m going to try to figure out why I thought this.

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Lulu at the Met

 

The Met’s new production of Lulu reminded me of something that might seem only a detail of the opera’s overstuffed plot: Dr. Ludwig Schön owns and edits a newspaper.

In the fin-de-siècle, newspapers were the ultimate and ubiquitous marker of bourgeois respectability. They shaped their readers’ daily experience of the world. We see this in Lulu: Lulu’s dance career is made by Schön’s paper, and news frequently arrives via newsprint. The Acrobat insults Schön’s paper as a “Käseblatt” (literally “cheese paper,” meaning poor boulevard press) but I imagine it must be a middlebrow broadsheet, part of Schön’s own facade of propriety. These are the papers that critics like Karl Kraus—whose scowl looms over this production at one point—condemned as pernicious and hypocritical, an instrument of the powerful which concealed more than they reveal.

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Otello at the Met

The Met has opened this season with a slightly belated acknowledgement that a lot of blackface is not a good look for a big mainstream American institution. Unfortunately the resulting pale production of Otello, which opened on Monday and I saw on Thursday, doesn’t have anything else new to say. The production does, however, have a major selling point, one that hasn’t been nearly as widely discussed: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electrifying conducting.

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Nuremberg’s Got Talent

If the Met’s performance Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of last Saturday were one of its own characters, it would be Veit Pogner. Pogner, Eva’s father, is aging, jovial, traditional, filthy rich (he is, after all, a goldsmith), not a great thinker, and maybe hasn’t quite thought through all of the implications of his grand plans. This was a solid Meistersinger, and it was a pleasure to have Wagner back at the Met after too long an absence. Most of it was good and a few things were more than good. Except for Michael Volle’s fascinating Hans Sachs, it was not daring and it was not exciting, but some meat and potatoes Wagner like we haven’t gotten in a while.


Wagner,
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Met Opera, 12/13/14 (HD broadcast, but seen by me live in house). Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by James Levine with Michael Volle (Hans Sachs), Johan Botha (Walther von Stolzing), Annette Dasch (Eva), Paul Appleby (David), Karen Cargill (Magdalene), Johannes Matin Kränzle (Beckmesser), Hans-Peter König (Pogner)

I was excited back in summer 2013 when Peter Gelb announced that Stefan Herheim’s Salzburg production of Meistersinger would be coming to the Met. As you can guess from my rather extensive Stefan Herheim archive here I think he’s the best. While I’m not sure if he’s a very good fit for the Met—actually I’m pretty sure his puzzle-like, historicizing style isn’t, but I’d like to see him in New York anyway—this production proved to be accessible and I think might go over well. But it won’t be happening until the 2019-2020 season, which gives new meaning to the phrase “music of the future.” Since Wagner is not on heavy rotation at the Met these days this 2014 Meistersinger is the last hurrah of the old production, even as the Herheim is already out on DVD. (Hopefully the Met will manage a better cast than Salzburg, except for Michael Volle as Sachs the Salzburg production was quite disappointing on that front.)

Anyway, this old, current, non-Herheim production is Otto Schenk’s Germanic storybook Zeffirelli moment. Flags are waved, pillows are relieved of their feathers from second story windows (at the height of the incomprehensibly staged riot), and small children march around for no particular reason except awwwwww. The sets are gigantic, and this production was built in the era when every production had a huge diagonal staircase or ramp, so there it is in the village lane set of Act 2. The costumes are heavy, modest, and curtain-like. You might know this production from the DVD with Ben Heppner, James Morris, and Karita Mattila.*

Some effort has gone into the blocking for this production, probably because it was an HD broadcast, and for a long opera it generally keeps moving well enough. But the cast, with the exception of Volle–and Annette Dasch, except the text doesn’t give her much to do–didn’t find much individuality or edge to the characters, and the production doesn’t give them any context either, and the result was pleasant and satisfying but not much more than that. I think this bothers me in Meistersinger in particular because it’s such an obviously rich and ambiguous text. It’s about artistic revolution and innovation and the role of tradition and, in the last act, takes a turn towards something much darker. This is a production such a literal reading of the libretto’s events—rather than their implications—that it never risks the slightest scratch of the marker’s chalk (sorry, but this is one of the most meta operas there is).

Pictured is alternate cast James Morris as Sachs,
showing the child-lifting instincts of the politician

About that last act, last scene. Schenk’s parade of the tradesmen and Nuremberg festivities reach a near Springtime for Hitler density of kitsch, with the same big pretzels, but considering the monologue with which Hans Sachs closes the opera that may not be the best choice of phrase. You can argue that the monologue, a warning that holy German art is under attack and must be protected, is largely an afterthought to the rest of the opera (though I don’t agree–the thing is six hours of constructing a glorious history-also-present for German art), but even so it sits uneasily with the Schenkian preciousness that surrounds it. It’s reminds us of the text’s deeper, more complex, and sometimes far more sinister purposes and histories, something we couldn’t miss in Michael Volle’s unnervingly aggressive delivery of that monologue. He seemed like an emissary from a different production (which he kind of was since he only sang two performances of this run). Maybe he’s from the Salzburg-Herheim, which is highly instructive at this moment.

(Morris still, with Kränzle as Beckmesser. Sorry.)

But for the Met this was business as usual. James Levine’s conducting was somewhat uneven but in places vintage and not nearly as slow as I feared. The Vorspiel went badly, a bland and undifferentiated cruise without momentum or character, but things picked up after that. Some parts were very slow, much of the opening to the opera’s detriment, and the Act III quintet more successfully, and it wasn’t perfectly clean (the riot was a little closer to disorder than the score demands), but the orchestra sounded great and the balances were good, better than many of Levine’s recent exploits.

Levine is an old hand with the score, and so is Johan Botha as Walther. I actually first heard him in this role, good lord, almost ten years ago at the Volksoper in Vienna. Back then his voice had an almost wondrous ease and gleam, now it has a darker, heftier texture (though he’s still on the brighter side of the Heldentenor spectrum). He still sounds like he could sing ten more verses of the Preislied without blinking, or without any more inflection that the minimal amount he expended on the first half dozen. That’s his weakness: while everything sounds good, it also all sounds the same, with clear diction but no intent behind the words. Walther might not be the most dynamic role but it helps to have at least a modicum of vocal and/or theatrical ardor present. And acting has never been Botha’s strong suit. At this performance he made a real effort to walk around but it was very noticeable that he only knows one gesture: arms slightly outstretched and palms facing outwards. It means, it seems, anything.

He offered little competition for Michael Volle’s Sachs, by far the most interesting character onstage. He skews youngish and baritonal for this role, and his Sachs is definitely a craftsman rather than a gentleman. (I know that might seem obvious but this role is often played with more gravitas and chin-scratching.) Yet he also gave a complex, text-centric interpretation, with considerable tension and anger in the monologues. This was not a benign portrayal, as I already mentioned above regarding the end. It’s funny how an opera which began about the young Walther ends with a huge chorus hailing Sachs as its hero, and there are compositional history reasons why this is the case, but Volle actually showed that as Sachs’s journey.

The rest of the cast ranged from good to adequate. Johannes Martin Kränzle sang Beckmesser well, without parody or whining, but nonetheless played him for laughs. (The best thing about the DVD of this production, BTW, is Thomas Allen’s Beckmesser, a more conflicted piece of work.) Annette Dasch acted very well as Eva, taking a confusing character and making her a relatively convincing young woman, but she struggled to fulfill the vocal demands. Her soprano sounds dry and strained, and while she got through it without major incident and showed a lot of effort and control in the quintet it was not pretty. Hans-Peter König was vocal boom itself as Pogner, and I wish he would sing Ochs (though I don’t know if he does comedy). Paul Appleby made David’s long Act 1 lesson pleasant and the Act 3 song charming, and he has the right laid-back energy to act this role. Karen Cargill sounded fine as Magdalene (sorry, this is a role I never particularly notice). The chorus sounded terrific in Act 3 and not quite as terrific in Act 2.

So I guess that I am glad that even in These Times the Met is still able to pull off big opera. I just wish they could be a little more consistently interesting about it. I’m waiting until 2019-2020, by which point my Herheim DVD probably won’t work because we’ll all be getting videos displayed directly in our brains. Zukunftsmusik!

Die Meistersinger marches onward through December 23, but again with James Morris. Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.

*Musicologists: this is the production in which Ben Heppner at one point suffered the unhappy cracks which went down in Critical Inquiry’s drastic-gnostic history.

VIDEO with James Morris, not Michael Volle
 

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The Death of Klinghoffer

When a media circus gathers around a performance, or a film,
or an artwork, the eventual performance often fails to equal the furor that
preceded it. “That’s it?” someone ends up asking. But the opposite happened at The Death of Klinghoffer: the protest was
zealous but the work emerged wiser and braver than I thought it would be. This
was the most intense performance I’ve ever seen at the Met, almost a tinderbox.
But the opera itself, despite its unevenness and a production which, in
some respects, troubled me, is far more than invective.


John Adams and Alice Goodman,
The Death of Klinghoffer. Metropolitan Opera, 10/20/2014 (new production premiere). Conducted by David Robertson, production by Tom Morris with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Laura Hopkins, lighting by Jean Kalman, video by Finn Ross, sound by Mark Grey and choreography by Arthur Pita. Wit Paulo Szot (Captain), Alan Opie (Klinghoffer), Michaela Martens (Marilyn Klinghoffer), sean Panikkar (Molqi), Aubrey Allicock (Mamoud), Jess Kovarsky (Omar), Ryan Speedo Green (“Rambo”), Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman)

I don’t think I can say anything new about this work (which just in case you haven’t been keeping up is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists, and the subsequent death of the American Leon Klinghoffer at the hands of the hijackers). Much
has been written about since its premiere. But I can offer some perspective based on
what I saw last night. Please forgive me if the result is scattered; I’d rather write this quickly.

I saw some of the protest beforehand, though not every speech. It was organized by local conservative Jewish groups and was big enough to make the front page of every one of the major New York papers as well as the free ones you get in the subway. What I
saw was a sequence of local politicians, including some fairly well known ones, offering angry condemnations without
the substance of any evidence from the opera itself, incongruously tempered by
the occasional disclaimer that they respect freedom of speech so don’t accuse them of calling for censorship. The opera was
repeatedly described as terrorist propaganda—the opera, mind you. No one ever
said John Adams or Alice Goodman were promoting terrorism when they wrote it,
they were careful about that. But one wonders how the opera did it all by
itself.
This is starkly different from the criticism of the 1991
New York premiere, described in Robert Fink’s essential article. The earlier protest was
led by mainstream music critics and grounded in claims about the text, as was
Richard Taruskin’s infamous 2001 condemnation. You can argue these writers were
mistaken or misread the opera or quoted selectively—indeed, I would argue just
that—but they did make specific reference to it. (I recommend Phil Gentry’s post on these issues.) Yesterday’s protestors seemed to feel no need to justify
their condemnations with any evidence, which gave their rhetoric a circular quality. This opera
promotes terrorism because it promotes terrorism. Depiction of an crime onstage
is, according to these protests, tantamount to endorsement of that crime. (As my friend said, “have they ever seen Law & Order?” As the front page of today’s New York Post said, “MURDER AT THE MET!”)
There could have been a conversation about this, and I think
it’s sad that the protestors showed so little interest in
anything beyond their slogans. Gelb has not helped. When the
complaint is one of morality, a response of “many consider it Adams’s greatest
work!” does not constitute an answer.
Along the entrances to Lincoln Center’s plaza, protests were
more heated. I was told I was despicable and should be ashamed, multiple times.
Protestors further invaded the performance itself. The most prolonged
interruption was a single person chanting shortly after the hijacking scene,
there were scattered boos and obscenities elsewhere.

The actual opera is a more complex, more elusive text than
any of this year’s protests captured. It’s a reflective, meditative work whose
presentational style owes a great deal to the Passions of Bach. Some of the
drama is acted out “live,” many sections are narrated from an unspecified remove. Choruses are
interspersed, singing texts on allegorical or, sometimes, more directly
historical themes. The libretto itself is poetic, elusive, and complex. Despite
an action movie plot (indeed, this event was made into two actual
action movies), it unfolds slowly and methodically. Adams’s tranquil music
builds up into block-like climaxes, or abruptly shatters into chaos. There are
mundane moments (Marilyn Klinghoffer’s description of her health issues) and
trivial ones (the bubbly and naïve British Dancing Girl), familiar to anyone
who heard about Leslie Groves’s diet in Doctor
Atomic
. Some of these lulls seem intentional, others don’t and it is unclear why they are there at all. It’s an uneven
piece, though in the end very powerful.
For the protest’s purposes—if they were interested in the
text—the depiction of the ship-hijacking terrorists is key. (Fink,
however, argues that in 1991 the problem was not so much the depiction of the
terrorists so much as the depiction of the American Jews, particularly in a
scene which has since been cut.) The terrorists are depicted as aimless, frustrated,
idealistic, but their actions are also unreservedly described as evil. That’s
not an overstatement. Adams and Goodman give Marilyn Klinghoffer the last word,
in a long speech. She mourns her husband and condemns the world’s inaction (“If
a hundred/People were murdered/And their blood/Flowed in the wake/Of this ship
like/Oil, only then/Would the world intervene.”) Klinghoffer himself has an
elegiac exit. The terrorists, in contrast, are mostly given broken, jagged,
ugly music (with a strong touch of the melismatic exoticism conventional given
to racial others). This is not particularly ambiguous, though it is also not
simple. The issues at hand aren’t simple either.

From what I have read about the opera’s original Peter
Sellars production, it was not realistic. The opera weaves together different
orders of time, and the passion play suggests something other than literal
representation. In 2004, Penny Woolcock’s film version of the opera is grittier, making much of the music a soundtrack to documentary-like
images (I have put a video of one of the choruses from this film at the end of this post). Tom Morris’s production for the Met seems to take its cue more from Woolcock
than Sellars. In Tom Pye’s set, looming walls serve as projection screens; the ship is suggested with a few railings.The narrated, past tense sections are told as if at a memorial
event; the action is depicted realistically. Projected titles supply times,
dates, and facts about the hijacking (even beginning before the performance and
continuing during intermission), giving the entire thing a CNN or Dateline
feel. This is an uneasy fit for the more abstract material of the choruses,
performed before projected images and utilizing a variety of symbols, including
a green flag (substituting for the real Palestinian flag) and, at one point,
what looked like two crucifixions (?).

The choruses are extensively choreographed (by Arthur Pita), though this is
mostly kept to those depicting the Palestinians. They are given a series of writhing,
violent gestures which seem appropriate to the music’s motion but also are
foreign to the rest of the production. (This is first seen at length in the
Night chorus, then later in the Desert Chorus.) Additionally, Morris has modified the role of Omar, originally
written for a mezzo. Here, the role is performed by a male dancer, who dances
in the same style while a woman in an abaya sings behind him, apparently
putting the thoughts in his head.

Omar and Woman
This choreography creates an association between the
Palestinians and the body: they express themselves through extreme,
uncontrolled motion in a way which the Jews do not. Particularly in a way which
the paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, the opera’s central Jewish character, cannot. I don’t like this; it seems to establish a binary which is cheaper and
less complex than the libretto or music, and plays into a number of old exotic
stereotypes. I think that the director felt the need for a stage motion
expressing the frantic energy of the score, but I’m not entirely sure if he
needed one. Or maybe not this one.
From my seat, the Prologue and Act I’s choruses seemed
somewhat underpowered, as did the soloists at times. Adams’s operas are
generally amplified (though this is not done in an obvious way) and I wondered
if they were tinkering with the mix, because things seemed better after
intermission. David Robertson conducted, and must have nerves of steel; he kept
going through all the short interruptions and must have never known what could
happen any second (not that any of the rest of us did, but we weren’t in
charge). The orchestra sounded absolutely terrific and the synthesizers seem
appropriate for the piece rather than just retro.

This is not really a singers’ opera or one with many star opportunities, but
the cast is excellent. As Marilyn, Michaela Martens’s final
monologue was sung with raw sincerity and some beautiful rich low notes. Paulo
Szot is a really excellent physical actor who almost never lapses into operatic
cliché, and sung the text very clearly (though the voice itself was somewhat
monochromatic). Alan Opie made Klinghoffer a three-dimensional character even
given the small amount of singing he had to do. As the terrorists, Sean
Panikkar, Aubrey Allicock, Ryan Speedo Green, and Jesse Kovarsky (as the
voiceless Omar) must not have had an easy task, nor did they have the most
rewarding music, but all sang with convincing conviction. As Omar’s singing
voice, Maya Lahyani showed an intriguingly grainy, cutting mezzo.

I’m not sure if the subsequent performances will seem as electric as this one. This danger must be horrible for everyone
performing. But I highly recommend you go see this for yourself if you can, with or without protests. The protests are not, it turns out, the central attraction.

Production photos copyright Ken Howard/Met
Curtain call with Adams (second from right) 

Trailer:
 

Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians, from the Penny Woolcock film:

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