L’étoile: Star treks

Emmanuel Chabrier, L’étoile.  New York City Opera, 3/18/10.  Conducted by Emmanuel Plasson with Julie Boulianne (Lazuli), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (King Ouf), Jennifer Zetlan (Laoula) in a production by Mark Lamos.

In New York, you can currently hear two very different examples of 19th-century French opera.  Last Tuesday I saw Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Met, and on Thursday Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile next door at the New York City Opera.  Compared to Thomas’s stern austerity, Chabrier is all bubbles.  Got to say I prefer Chabrier.  This is a score of considerable musical sophistication and refinement, but also not above a long ensemble about tickling.  (Hi, Eric Massa!)

And this production is a fun night out.  The plot is pure Offenbachian silliness: a king is looking for a victim for his annual celebratory public execution, but his astrologer warns him that his choice’s horoscope is closely linked to his own, and should he carry out the execution the king himself will die within a day.  Meanwhile the would-be victim, Lazuli, falls in love with the King’s fiancée.  Hijinks ensue.  How can you not love an opera that has a “Song of Impalement”?  Such non-stop goofiness would become tiring, though, if there weren’t a fair number of lyrical moments as well, and if the music weren’t so consistently inspired.

The City Opera’s production, by Mark Lamos, goes for the goofy end of things, it’s surreal, brightly colored and with a lot of choreographed musical numbers–think a great deal of bobbing up and down.  It’s entertaining and effective, and fits the character of the music very well.  Even the many choruses get entertaining choreographic treatment.  The empty white stage is subject to much bricolage, in the old movie musical sense.  The story is cute enough but often an excuse for flights of musical mischief and parody, which the production treats with suitable fantasy.  It’s a revival, and while it’s the first time I’ve seen it, I suspect the first iteration may have been a little bit dramatically tighter, and maybe more attuned to the poignant moments in the score.  But it’s still great fun.

The orchestra sounded great (conducted by Emmanuel Plasson, son of Michel Plasson), and the singing was mostly strong.  This was my first experience with the new acoustics of the unfortunately-named David Koch Theatre, but I had only been to the old version two or three times so I can’t make a detailed comparison (love those aisles, though!).  But I think it’s an improvement, everything is clear if not the most resonant.  Julie Boulianne sounded great as Lazuli, but was sometimes covered by the orchestra in the faster and lower parts of the role.  Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sounds like he is past his best tenorial days, but he’s still hilarious and stylistically perfect.  Jennifer Zetlan was bright and mellifluous as the Princess Laoula.

So the City Opera isn’t the Met.  We know this.  But this is a great opera (one I doubt the Met could stage successfully), and the production, despite some sketched-in bits, is cheery and silly and inventive and visually more interesting than a lot of things you see next door.  So why the rows and rows of empty seats?  This company is in a bad place, or rather hopefully getting out of a bad place, and they need your support.  By all means go and admire Simon Keenlyside’s biceps singing over at the Met, but please consider a visit to City Opera too.  You’ll get an entertaining night at the opera, and help to ensure that this company stays with us in the future.  They need you!  And you might not realize it, but you need L’étoile too–it will cheer you up, at least.

Their remaining two productions this spring are a revival of Mark Lamos’s lovely minimalist production of Madame Butterfly and a production of Handel’s Partenope by the fantastic Spanish director Francisco Negrin.  I’m hoping to go to the latter.

Next: This William Christie fangirl sees her idol in person for the first time.  Fairy Queen at BAM!

Photos from the New York Times/Sarah Krulwich.  Sorry, Times, but I couldn’t find any of the current cast on the City Opera website.

City Opera trailer:

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Hamlet: More than kin but less than kind

Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet.  Metropolitan Opera, 3/16/2010.  Conducted by Louis Langrée with Simon Keenlyside (Hamlet), Marlis Petersen (Ophélie), Jennifer Larmore (Gertrude), James Morris (Claudius), Toby Spence (Läerte), David Pittsinger (Ghost).  New production premiere by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser.

In last Sunday’s Times, directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser defended Ambroise Thomas’s operatic Hamlet’s “dramatic integrity” and lack of sentimentality and bombast.  That’s one way of looking at it.  For my taste, despite some good set pieces and two compelling leading roles, the ratio of banal to memorable music is far too high, and Thomas’s dull score wears out its welcome well before the end of this (sometimes interminable) work.  Caurier and Leiser’s production has some sincere and compelling acting.  But visually it ranges from unmemorable to ugly, and is marred by some unnecessarily silly touches that could well be cut.  While I enjoyed some of the performances a great deal and don’t exactly regret that I saw it, I feel no need to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet ever again.

Of course for English-speaking audiences in particular this opera stands in the long shadow of Shakespeare’s play, which we all have studied and seen many times.  Comparison is kind of interesting but tells us more about ourselves than it does about this opera.  For my part I really miss Shakespeare’s supporting characters: Polonius and Horatio are there but not important enough to qualify as characters, and forget about Roz and Guil.  More interesting is the loss of Fortinbras, which reduces the plot to basically a family drama.  Thomas’s Hamlet notoriously lives at the end, as is standard in French opera of this time.  He doesn’t in this production, we’ll get to that.

Caurier and Leiser’s production is abstract, and the sets a few dingy rotating walls.  Thus continues the reign of beige or beige-ish (these were pink) at the Met this year.  These are some of the least compelling of their species, and to little other than give the singers something (ugly) to stand in front of.  Maybe they looked better in one of the small opera houses from which this production originated?  (This production has been around.  It’s already on DVD.)  Costumes are generic royal with occasional surreal bits.  I guess the best thing about the design is that it brings the focus to the characters.

Simon Keenlyside gives a real tour de force in the leading role, and is probably the best thing about this production.  Thomas gives Hamlet mostly austere music, with the exception of the notorious rollicking drinking song (if you know anything out of this opera, it’s probably this).  Keenlyside does an excellent job capturing Hamlet’s shifts between ambivalence, grief, and rage, and is probably one of the best actors you’re going to see in opera today.  His voice has also gotten warmer and rounder than I remember, and seems ideal for this music.  He can pull off most of the production’s more audacious ideas, including an over-the-top quasi-mad scene that enlivens a dull chorus and reprise of the drinking song.  But even he can’t sell Hamlet running into a wall at the end of the otherwise exciting Hamlet-Gertrude duet.  (I remember this being a dumb moment in the DVD.  Why hasn’t someone cut it by now?)

Marlis Petersen is new to me.  I suppose this production was put on mostly for Dessay, but she is more than an adequate substitute, and in this high stuff probably far superior than Dessay these days.  Her voice is slightly dark in color, unusual and interesting for a coloratura type, but clear and in tune (mostly).  She doesn’t have much legato in her singing, which I didn’t mind here, but I can see why she specializes in German roles.  Compared to Keenlyside, who can make a great deal of a small gesture, her performance was sometimes a bit blank, but considering that as a late substitute for Dessay she barely got a chance to rehearse at all and was probably really jet-lagged, she was impressively coordinated with everyone else.  And her mad scene, given a bloody and dramatic staging involving (I think) a phantom pregnancy, was excellent and one of the highlights of the evening, the staging occasionally serving to distract from some strained high notes.  The musically innovative coda, in which wordless offstage pre-Daphnis et Chloé nymphs coax Ophelia into the river, however, seemed dramatically unnecessary and only served to remind me that I missed Lost AGAIN.  Also that I would rather be seeing Rusalka.

But Caurier and Leiser?  When you speak admiringly of Thomas’s restraint and then stage a mad scene that involves a lot of self-mutilation and another that involves your protagonist pouring wine over his own head I begin to doubt your stated opposition to silly effects.  Anyways, spicing up the boring parts is entirely justified, and desperately needed.  The mixture of melodrama and sensitive lyricism is probably the most interesting thing here, even if the melodrama occasionally slides into the ridiculous and the lyric into the dull.  These kinds of contrasts are, after all, the stuff 19th-century French operas are made of.  (Oops, wrong Shakespeare there.)

Jennifer Larmore was best in Gertrude’s melodramatic moments, particularly her scene with Hamlet.  (There is one circumstance in which I would see Hamlet again: Waltraud Meier as Gertrude.  Not that that will ever happen, so I’m safe.)  James Morris seriously needs to retire.  He was wobbly but not horrible in Simon Boccanegra, but his singing here pained the ears.  Toby Spence was a tenor, that’s about all I have to say, I could hear him but he is somewhat pale of voice.  Läerte doesn’t give one much to work with, I seem to recall an aria at the beginning but can say nothing of it.  David Pittsinger as the Ghost outsang Morris by a mile, they should swap roles.

As for that ending?  Thomas’s Act V takes place at Ophelia’s funeral (after the gravedigger’s episode, though there is no Yorick) and does not resemble Shakespeare very much.  Apparently inspired by the previous year’s premiere of Verdi’s Don Carlos, the libretto gives the ghost a reappearance.  Thomas later wrote an ending in which Hamlet dies.  This production uses some parts of that ending, and, SPOILER, in a very short sword fight Laertes and Hamlet manage to kill each other.  I did not find it convincing, but was glad that the opera was finally over.  (It is three hours 20 minutes with only one intermission.  Sorry, but that is too long when you’re Ambroise Thomas.)

Some booing at the end, surprisingly for conductor Louis Langrée as well as the directors.  The conducting did not strike me as anything special, but neither did it seem that bad.  There were quite a few clams from the brass in Act 1, but I don’t think that was Langrée’s fault.  As for the production team boos, well, that seems to be our mode of opera(tion) these days.

Next: Emmanuelle Chabrier infamously quipped, “There is good music, there is bad music, and there is the music of Ambroise Thomas.”  We will consider this statement further after a performance of Chabrier’s L’Étoile at the City Opera on Thursday.  (It is thoughtfully given an early curtain, so I might be able to get home in time for Project Runway!)

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Dude where’s my nose

Shostakovich, The Nose.  Metropolitan Opera, 3/5/2010.  New production premiere by William Kentridge, conducted by Valery Gergiev with Paulo Szot (Kovalyov), Gordon Gietz (his nose), Andrei Popov (police inspector), many many other people.

Whew!  That was quite an evening.  Shostakovich’s first opera is an odd one, and William Kentridge’s new production at the Met is visually fantastic and appropriately individual.  The AP seems to think it’s “daunting” for its few and brave audience members, but really it’s nothing of the sort, and y’all should go see it because you’ll love it.

But it is obscure, so maybe some background is in order: Shostakovich was only in his early twenties when he composed this, his first opera. The libretto is a fairly direct adaptation of the Gogol story of the same title with the exception of some added scenes in the second half of the opera.  It premiered in 1930, at the tail end of an experimental era in Soviet art, just before the crackdown that infamously condemned Shostakovich’s second opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”  Read Laurel Fay’s excellent, unsentimental biography for more.

The plot concerns a man who wakes up one day to find his nose is missing.  He chases it all over St. Petersburg.  It’s utterly absurd, and Shostakovich’s chaotic, mostly non-tonal score is equally non-sensical, at least on the surface.

The Met’s production is dominated by Kentridge’s animations, projected onto the cyclorama behind the action.  They mix drawings with newspaper clippings and archival footage.  The use of newspapers throughout the production is ingenious, replicating the stance of Gogol’s narrator, who is only a reporter of events he can’t quite believe.  The interior scenes take place on small rolling set pieces, the exterior ones on the empty stage in front of the cyc (the projections sometimes provide suggestions of our locale, sometimes not).  The animations also include a great deal of text, both in English and Russian: some enigmatic but vaguely relevant epigrams, some titles for the sung text, and some straightforward scene setting letting us know where we are.

As you can guess, it is all very busy.  The animations are often the center of attention, especially when you are sitting far up like I was and they are so much bigger than the people onstage.  Sometimes I found them distracting from the music, and it may be honest to say this is more Kentridge’s Nose than Shostakovich’s,* but for the most part I thought they added rather than detracted, and pick up on the montage qualities of the score.  In general, both the animations and the direction of the singers showed a lot of attention to the music, even if they occasionally overshadowed it.  Also, it all looks really cool.

The only character of real significance is Kovalyov, he of the missing nose, sung here by South Pacific‘s Paulo Szot.   He’s got a pleasant, not particularly memorable baritone that isn’t quite big enough for the Met in this role and was inaudible occasionally.  But he’s very sympathetic and likeable in what is more or less the passive reactionary (as in reacting) role, and once he (spoiler) regains his nose celebrates with a lot of charming semi-dancing that makes me wish he had been given a more dynamic role in the rest of the opera.

Szot wasn’t alone in having some musical issues.  The orchestra for this opera is small, and not small but big like Ariadne, but actually small.  Gergiev made it colorful and snappy like he usually does, but it all got a bit lost in the barn, and everything sounded much more distant than usual.  I think the audibility problems may have been due to the projection screens, which may have been absorbing sound–all the singers sounded a bit muffled, despite the small orchestra.  Things in the small downstage rooms were acoustically much better.

The many other soloists were good as well, including Andrei Popov’s very very high notes as the Police Inspector and Gordon Gietz’s almost as high notes as the Nose itself.  On the female side, Erin Morley’s mini-letter aria was really lovely (and will surely sound familiar to all you Onegin fans–both are going for the romance genre). 

Kentridge’s big scenes included some fantastic (in the uncanny sense) characters with masks and odd proportions whose purpose I didn’t really understand, but I’ll chalk it all up to “this is absurdist.”  (See above photo.)  Szot’s nose never goes missing in a literal way, which gives the reactions to its absence a sinister quality–and the giant paper-mache nose running and dancing around is also a little scary.  While the story is set in Imperial Russia, the political elements of this production point at an ambiguous later era.  Despite all the Russian in the animations and the occasional image of Stalin or Shostakovich, it’s very generalized, dealing with paranoia, rumor-spreading, bureaucracy, and mob mentalities that could be anywhere and any time.   It’s “Kafkaesque”–Kovalyov could be Josef K.–in a way that actually feels appropriate and informative for the work, unlike, um, say, Les Contes d’Hoffmann.  It’s abstract but creates a coherent world for the work in a visually compelling way.  So it’s a winner for me.

A few words about the “daunting” bit espoused by the AP: AP, you are WRONG.  For an audience whose only cultural consumption is Rigoletto, the musical and dramatic language of The Nose is challenging.  But for anyone even vaguely familiar with modern literature, theater, or film it is probably a heck of a lot more accessible than Lucia di Lammermoor.  Culturally literate people who think opera is not for them should all see this, it’s entirely unstuffy, it’s funny, it’s short, it’s visually memorable.  Seriously, I don’t get it, AP (but thanks for all the pictures, which I stole).  The Awl has a good piece explaining why you should go see this, if I haven’t convinced you.  Really, go.

Next:  Too many premieres recently, I’m tiiiiired.  Off next week, but after that, Hamlet or not to Hamlet, that is the question. Answer is unclear.  I like Keenlyside but think the opera is pretty boring.  Shame it’s getting an HD broadcast and not The Nose. If not, until L’Étoile at the City Opera.

*According to the piece on Kentridge in The New Yorker, the nose IS in fact modeled on Kentridge’s own, so there.

Photos by Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press.

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Attila the underdone

Verdi, Attila.  Metropolitan Opera, 2/23/2010.  Conducted by Riccardo Muti and no one really cares about anything else.  No, wait, it was a new production by Pierre Audi with Violeta Urmana (Odabella), Ramon Vargas (Foresto), Giovanni Meoni (Ezio) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila) with sets and costumes by Herzog, de Meuron, and fat-phobic Miuccia Prada.

The story of this show, for good and ill, begins and ends with Riccardo Muti.  The good is that the music had tremendous style and shape, the orchestra sounded fantastic, and the singing was variable but committed.  The bad is that Muti wields his power over directors in ways not necessarily conducive to dramatically exciting productions.  The most important thing seems to be that the singers have an uninterrupted view of Signor Muti at all times.  I got the feeling that the director and designers were very aware of this and were trying to make the restrictions part of their concept, but it backfired a bit.  They might have been aiming for the formalism of Greek tragedy, but the blocking was so sparse it just ended up static and stiff.   Not a successful collaboration, but the production has redeeming qualities, and I enjoyed it.

Purely as looks, I liked a lot of the design.  It’s certainly more visually striking and original than many other endeavors this season (e.g. Carmen, Hoffmann, Tosca).  The prologue begins on an enormous pile of rubble, most of the other scenes are staged against an enormous curtain of greenery.*  But both provide little space for movement.  The costumes are vaguely steampunk post-apocalyptic something, including a scary Marge Simpson/Bride of Frankenstein ‘do for Odabella, but even from my seat around a third of the way back in orchestra (thanks, lady who rescued me from standing room!) only some of the details read–namely the car-wash fringe on Ezio shoulders and the occasional LED lights.  Most of it was too dark.  Also, all the hems were too long, everyone was holding up their skirts and capes all evening.

The blocking was, to put it gently, minimal, clustered in the stage’s limited spaces, all of which coincidentally were near Muti.  There were some efforts to be static with ATTITUDE, most successfully by Urmana, but generally everyone just stared out at the audience at Muti.  A sympathetic interpreter would say that the concept is that the characters are caught in a destroyed (rubble) and wild (forest) world where human connections are impossible, Attila’s army is nothing more than a faceless mass (in fancy t-shirts).  A less sympathetic one would say that this distant approach is a poor fit for a work that has a lot of passionate relationships, both of love and hate.  I’m somewhere in between these two.

OK, now for the music.  The orchestra sounded fantabulous from the first bars.  The strings had an amazing gauzy quality, I was never once conscious of there being oom-pahs, though I know there were, I have never heard a less bombastic and bangy account of early Verdi.  Or most middle Verdi.  It was loud, there was a lot of dramatic contrast, but nothing was underlined solely for flashy effect, it felt right.

The singers similarly showed subtlety and sensitivity–in early Verdi terms that is–though their instruments weren’t ideal.   I liked Violeta Urmana’s Odabella quite a lot despite some obvious problems.  She owned the role and production more than anyone else in the cast, and tore into the music and its considerable quantity of notes.  But her high notes were shrill, her middle voice better but not always opulent, and her chest notes loud enough but not exciting.

Ildar Abdrazakov should have been the star of the show.  The problem is that he wasn’t.  He wasn’t bad, his sound is warm and biggish, he looked scary, but he lacks charisma and star power.  It seemed like Attila’s part is somewhat dull, which I’m sure in the hands of a star bass it isn’t.  The production didn’t help by depriving him of the opportunity to show his power over the troops–the chorus being caught in the set’s underworld.  Unmemorable.

Ramón Vargas is a tenor of great musicality and cruised through lots of the music with a nice legato.  But he lacks the heroic heft needed for this part, he was audible but the voice is just too lyric for an opera this fierce.  I think there is strain, his tone is developing an unfortunate flutter similar to Alagna’s in recent years.  Finally, Giovanni Meoni subbed for Carlos Alvarez as Ezio and did a fine job with a large, round, pleasant sound, though he lacked something in dramatic attitude I can hardly fault a cover for that (and everyone except Urmana needed an attitude injection, really).

As for the booing, I talked to a bunch of people in intermission and afterwards, and their major complaints all seemed to be about the abstract sets.  OPEN YOUR MINDS, people.  As long as we’re all whining that the Big Wall o’ Green Stuff is not a legitimate visualization of a wild forest, we’re never going to get to get to Level 2 of Abstract Regie, at which point we consider that the forest could perhaps not even have trees and still be OK (GASP).  It’s not that there weren’t problems here, but don’t be ridiculous.

To catch up with the news, Prada’s skinny replacements for the fired supersized supers were superfluous, though skinny.  Also, Robby Duiveman is credited as “Associate Costume Designer” and gets a picture and bio in the program, which makes me wonder as to the extent of Prada’s involvement with the production.

There are some memorable scenic effects, most of all some rotating gobos that made the wall o’ green stuff come alive, which made me remember that I missed Lost last night.  Do we know if Sayid is a zombie yet?  No, don’t tell me.  Also, can Daniel Faraday show up wearing Attila’s  kickass spiky helmet?  Because that would be awesome.

Next: Have you seen my Nose?

*The wall serves to remind us to visit the David Rubenstein Atrium down the block, which has a very similar albeit smaller green wall designed by the same dudes–also, have a sandwich there, they’re delicious if a bit pricey.  Unless you’re in danger of being fired by Miuccia Prada, that is.

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Ariadne auf Naxos: All hail Nina the Great

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos.  Metropolitan Opera, 2/4/2010.  Conducted by Kirill Petrenko with Nina Stemme (Ariadne), Kathleen Kim (Zerbinetta), Sarah Connolly (Komponist), Michael Hendrick (Bacchus).  Directed by Laurie Feldman, after a production by Elijah Moshinsky.

As you can probably guess, in the whole Ariadne v. Zerbinetta stakes of this opera, I’m usually on the side of the trilling, coloratura’d one.  But last night was not usual.  Nina Stemme as Ariadne was the only singer in this cast who makes things more than routine.  More than that, she is FANTASTIC.  New fan here.

The Vorspiel was disappointing.  The production is overstuffed with Merry Antics from Zerbinetta’s troupe, the stage cluttered.  Nothing zoomed or zinged or zipped, it just sort of ambled.  The orchestra seemed asleep at their scores.  (Though I think the chamber scoring of the whole score is a bad fit for the Met’s size, and I suspect a lot of detail was lost.)  Sarah Connolly’s Komponist was respectably and musically sung but without vocal breadth or glamour.  Jochem Schmeckenbecher a well-sung but dully characterized Music Teacher.

The Oper was better.  Petrenko seemed to connect with the orchestra, everything balanced out a bit more.  But the big thing is Nina Stemme’s Ariadne, which is magnificent.  She has a giant, darkish, round sound with bright top notes, very expressive and beautifully musically sung.  We so often make compromises with dramatic voices:

  • “The voice is huge but so ugly”
  • “Big sound, but no musicality at all.”
  • “Nicely sung but the voice isn’t really large enough”
  • Our favorite: “Decent singing but what an immobile lump onstage.”

Nina Stemme requires no compromises, she’s got pretty much everything.  Beautiful singing and a good, convincing actress to boot, with what this production gives her.   She was quite funny in the prologue, and magisterial in the Opera.*  Shame that Petrenko rushed through “Es gibt ein Reich,” I wish we could have heard those high notes held a bit longer–OK, I should go hear her as Brünnhilde or Isolde, I know.  I hope she will be singing more at the Met in the future, it’s really shameful that up to this point her only credit is a Senta from ten years ago.  (Side note to those who know me: She’s Swedish.  I continue to insist that everyone and everything that comes from Sweden is AWESOME.)

I enjoyed Kathleen Kim’s Olympia in Hoffmann last December very much, but as Zebinetta she didn’t offer Stemme much competition in the vocal compare-and-contrast.  She’s cute and has a sweet voice, but not nearly the magnitude of personality or variety of expressive colors to make Zerbinetta more than a caricature. Compared to Stemme’s march through rage, vulnerability, excitement, and more rage, she was just bubbly.  She’s in the songbird mode, and while Zerbinetta’s aria demands chirping it also requires a much wider emotional range, and quicker changes between moods.  The more lyrical parts of the role had little impact, particularly the Vorspiel duet with the Komponist.  There was some fudging in the last section of the big aria, and her trill isn’t particularly good, but it’s a marathon.

Tenor Lance Ryan was out sick, and unfortunately cover Michael Hendrick was sick too, but bravely went on.  Poor guy, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for anyone concerned, but he sounds like he has a good voice, and I hope to hear him under more favorable circumstances at some point.

(Does anyone else think the nymphs’ lengthy hyping of Bacchus’s appearance is unfortunate?  Has there EVER been a hot heldentenor Bacchus?  Couldn’t they go on about how great his spirit is or something instead?  We can acknowledge that most heldentenors aren’t lookers and get on with it but the text just reminds us.  Repeatedly.)

The Rhinemaidens, I mean the nymphs, by the way, were beautifully sung, particularly Tamara Mumford’s Dryade.  This production has them rolling around on these high dress things, and the ladies have to emote solely with their elbows.  But prettily done.  Zerbinetta’s backup singers were unobjectionable, if occasionally inaudible.  I could have done with less mugging but I guess that’s the production’s fault.  I wasn’t sure if all the comic stuff was really supposed to be funny (which it wasn’t, but this business is hard to pull off) or intentionally dumb and annoying, in which case it wasn’t ridiculous enough.  I think the intentionally dumb angle belongs to another production, one with a more radical perspective on the piece.

The production, originally by Moshinsky, is traditional in the prologue and a little more fanciful in the opera.  It involves many of those sliding panels we know and hate from Bartlett Sher’s Met productions.  And who should the set designer be but Michael Yeargan, who designed Sher’s Barbiere and Hoffmann as well (he also designed the current Don Giovanni, which probably featured sliding panels but I’ve blocked that particular night at the Met from my memory).  Oh well, the panels slide endlessly to no clear end but the final tableau with Bacchus is nice, and the colors are beautiful (an attractive color scheme in a Met production! what a concept!). 

Confession: once I got the measure of things, secretly I was hoping for the other Ariadne, the one in which it rains, the fireworks are canceled, and the two shows are performed separately.  Then I could leave before Zerbinetta and her team came out.  But I landed in the wrong timeline where the plane DOES crash and got the usual crazy smashed-together one.  No Desmond in my timeline, very disappointing.  Also, aren’t we all glad Lost is back?  Three cheers for surreal desert islands.

Next!: I’m not sure!  The Met is quiet this month.  I may write about The Bridge Company’s Tempest shortly!  Otherwise, Attila!  Do you know Pierre Audi?  If you do, you will know why I am very intrigued to see this!

*However, I didn’t like how the production has Ariadne drop back into the persona of the Prima Donna from the Prologue when Zerbinetta first enters.  The Opera is something much more interesting than just an extrapolation of the Prologue’s events, and going back into the Prologue mode breaks the mood.

Video Bonus: Nina Stemme sings the Liebstod

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Simon Boccanegra: I Can Still Sing, But I Never Could Fence Properly

Verdi-Piavo/Boito, Simon Boccanegra.  Metropolitan Opera, 1/22/10.  Conducted by James Levine. Placido Domingo (Boccanegra), Adrianne Pieczonka (Amelia), Marcello Giordani (Adorno), James Morris (Fiesco), Patrick Carfizzi (Paolo). Directed by Peter McClintock after a production by  Giancarlo del Monaco.

Oh, better far to live and die
Under this baritone’s flag I fly,
Than sing an odd modulating part,
With an aging voice if a tenor’s heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where other tenors transpose too;
But I don’t care which fach I sing,
I’ll live reborn as a Baritone King.

Apologies to G&S.  (I hasten to remind you that Simon Boccanegra was a semi-pirate before becoming Doge.  You don’t know how hard it was to not write a lot of pirate jokes into this review, mateys.)

This opera is pure gold, y’all.  Yeah, the plot is a bit convoluted, but the score is absolute perfection from start to finish. And maybe it’s partly because I’m so partial to this period of Verdi but this was one of the most musically satisfying performances I’ve seen at the Met in a while.  Sure, there are some perplexing things (like “age”) happening to the voice of our dear Placido Domingo, which I will discuss!  And the staging is pretty as a picture, a picture painted many centuries ago, and about as mobile as a painting too (coming from me, this is not a compliment)!  And yet I highly recommend.

Let’s start off with the most important thing, and that would be James Levine.  When I see him conduct like he did last night I feel that most of the time I am insufficiently appreciative of his skill, because it was awesome.  But I honestly haven’t heard him conduct a performance this majestic, this finely colored, this exciting in a while.  There are a few little orchestral interludes that ended up being a little conductor-showy–I swear part of the intro to Amelia’s aria was sounding like a Klangfarbenmelodie–but all to fantastic effect.

Adrianne Pieczonka sang Amelia, the only female role in the opera.  She had a slightly iffy start, the entrance aria doesn’t sit in the prettiest part of her voice (an aria Krassimira Stoyanova hits out of the park, actually her Amelia is generally fantastic).  But after the aria Pieczonka was fantastically consistent.  By which I mean, musically perfectly precise, refined, and controlled.  That’s not something you hear in this rep very often.  Her voice itself is very lyric, clear, and even in color and yet big, projecting marvelously, an interesting combination that makes me think she would be good as the Elisabeth of your choice (Carlos or Tannhäuser).  Really gorgeous, I would love to hear her more at the Met.  Get on that, Casting Department!

She was somewhat oddly matched with the infuriatingly inconsistent Marcello Giordani as Gabriele Adorno.  He’s got something that not many tenors have, a certain sound and fearlessness that makes things work in an exciting way.  But his voice can turn sour on occasion, and next to a singer as tasteful as Pieczonka he sounds somewhat musically sloppy and coarse, she somewhat too restrained (JJ in the Post referred to her as “primly musical,” which is harsh but also true).  But mostly it was a good night for him, this role a much better fit for his unsubtle style than most–Adorno is such a hothead–than, well, Faust in Damnation de Faust.

In what often resembled Senior Night onstage, James Morris as Fiesco had the unenviable effect of making Placido Domingo (see below) sound young.  I realize in years he is somewhat fewer, but all those Wotans have had their costs.  He has gravitas, yes, there’s a lot of sound left too, but it’s wobbly, and his low notes have deserted him more or less completely.  He’s not quite in Ramey territory yet, but approaching it (look behind you, you may see a hill).  Also, the sword fight between him and Placido in the Prologue was rather pathetic, I’m not sure if this was due to a lot of arthritis or insufficient rehearsal time or what, but it did not live up to the ferocity of the score in any way.
OK, now onto Placido Domingo.  Let’s forget about the questionable management of opera companies and conducting for a moment.  Miraculously, at his age and in this tessitura, he still sounds like Placido Domingo, more or less.  And that would be a tenor sound.  Ironically, he may have finally proven to all those critics who said he’s a baritone that he’s been a tenor all along (a criticism whose logic I fail to see–he was a baritone who had a very long, very healthy career as one of the best tenors ever? really???).  In case this isn’t already clear, I LOVE Placido Domingo.  I have heard lots of his recordings, if I need a recording of an opera and one by him is available and the thing isn’t in German I will almost always pick him, I’m not a completist because generally I’m not like that and besides being a Domingo completist would be IMPOSSIBLE, but I’m very familiar with what his voice sounded like in his prime.

Which makes seeing him in this opera just a little surreal at times.  Because he is, inarguably, still Placido Domingo, and still sounds like it.  But the age and tessitura disguise him a bit, like watching Sean Connery in a movie today after having seen lots of James Bonds.  But there’s no way he sounds like a baritone, he sounds like Placido Domingo singing low, and while there is a certain loss of that Verdi baritone sound in this opera, there’s a lot of gain because it is Placido-freaking-Domingo.  The very audible prompter did have a big job last night (not the first time), but still, he gets the nobility and generosity of this character just right, even with the occasional wobble.

No whining about the plot, folks, sure, it’s too complicated and has some holes but I actually like it, and find it much more involving than many other works of similar convolution, maybe because the music is so good.

I feel obliged to comment on the production, but don’t have much to say about it.  It is pretty, the prologue and Council Chamber especially so.  It has a few functional issues, namely sometimes it’s a little creaky in the most literal sense and the offstage chorus behind the Council Chamber isn’t the most audible.  The statue that is pulled down in the Prologue is a silly-looking effect (apparently the Genoese equip their statues with hinges for smooth toppling and removal).  The Act 3 set is set very far upstage in a way that I believe facilitates a faster scene change but seems like a slightly spiteful screwing of those of us who are already sitting pretty far from the stage.  The Personenregie wasn’t out to make any statements, the only interesting thing that happens is in the last act, when Fiesco sits in Simon’s chair, which actually is a good kind of point.  If you want a fancypants Regie Boccanegra it does exist on the YouTubes, and looks intriguing.

So yeah, go if you can, you won’t regret it.

Next: A plane carrying a commedia dell’arte troupe crashes on a tropical island inhabited only by a lamenting woman, some unhelpful nymphs chanting mysterious numbers, and a cloud of smoke with a bad attitude.   Let us now say thanks that the prima of Ariadne auf Naxos does not fall on the same night as that of Lost.

I won’t be seeing Il Mondo della Luna at Gotham Chamber Opera, though appears to be something right up my alley it is sold out and I failed to remember to buy a ticket earlier.  (Gotham Chamber Opera!  Call me!  I will write about it!  Not that you seem to have any problems selling tickets, but, well, I’m totally an opster!)

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Je vais marcher dans votre co-production

La Fille du Régiment, Met Opera, 4/21/08. Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flórez, Felicity Palmer, Alessandro Corbelli et. al. Marco Armiliato.

Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment is an obsession-filled story of a twisted nuclear family. Only when Marie has shed her fractured paternal attachment with the regiment and reluctantly conformed to a traditional model of feminine conduct can she be united with her love, Tonio, who must in turn trade his lederhosen for a uniform to prove his masculinity. Don’t make me tell you about the tank.

Just kidding. Mostly. Been reading some Freud recently; it gets to you.

This production is a hoot. It kept coming very close to the line of Too Much, but never really crossed it.

I liked Natalie Dessay’s Marie a lot more than I liked her Lucia (not reviewed here because I saw the dress rehearsal). Her Marie is a little like a cartoon character, mixed with a slightly mystifying dose of Olympia and occasionally capable of brief introspection. Her voice is still razor-like and somewhat vinegary, but it suits this role and her interpretation of it precisely. Her middle voice had something of a glow to it that I didn’t hear in her Lucia, and her manic presence is also more at home as Marie than as Lucia (where she was hopelessly muted until the Mad Scene). “Forceful” would perhaps describe her voice, but, well, Marie is forceful too. The coloratura is so integrated with the stage action, it’s both funny and entirely verisimilar in an operatic way.

My appreciation of this opera will probably be forever hampered by my utter ambivalence about the 9 or however many high C’s that take up residence in Tonio’s “Ah! mes amis.” I have nothing but praise for Senor Flórez’s panache in singing them, and recognize that it’s an amazing feat, it’s just not my preferred mode of vocal athleticism. And I don’t find the music itself of this number very interesting. Yes, he sang it twice, it was pretty great the second time too, I’m sure I just saw vocal history but give me the regiment song or the Act II trio, or something with lots of coloratura, or whatever. Bwah. Sorry.

But I love love love Juan Diego Flórez. He’s got a lot more than the high C’s, namely charm and style. The slow parts were beautiful, and the cute parts totally cute. He’s funny without forcing anything.

I think Alessandro Corbelli has somewhat more than the amount of voice required of your average buffo but somewhat less than would be required by most other operatic roles. Tonight, at least, he sounded somewhat small and not quite boomy enough. He’s very amusing and his French is fine, though. Felicity Palmer was, as usual, both hilarious and vocally authoritative as the Marquise, nice piano playing too (and re Maury’s question: her piano bit sounded vaguely like Act III of Wozzeck to me). Marian Seldes didn’t steal the show as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, which I think is a good thing. She did make it pretty funny though, including a recurring joke about a bobsled team that made wonderfully little sense.

They all sell the thing, perhaps a little too well. There isn’t a lot of time to breathe. Sometimes the production feels like a slightly overoiled machine. Donizetti comedy is goofy but lovable, without the spicy touch of the surreal that can invade Rossini opera buffa. To be the truly anarchic experience this sucker wants to be, it could use a few more touches of interpolated Wacky to take it out of the “mildly zany” (pace Maury) and into the “totally weird” (though a little bobsled joke goes a long way), or it needs to take the piece as it is and play it a little more straight. It feels like they’re going to squeeze the opera too hard and it’s going to break, though it never quite happens. The emotional scale is a little too big, they want to be able to be touching and wacky at the same time but the gear shifts don’t happen quickly or completely enough and you end up on a fence.

These sell-out-before-anyone-has-seen-it productions bother me. I don’t think it’s been overhyped exactly, it just seems like it has been ordained a hit regardless of its actual quality. Like the encore, it seems somewhat planned out and calculated when it could use some spontaneity. It’s symptomatic of the gains and the losses you get when you import or co-produce something with other houses (in this case, two others–ROH and the Wiener Staatsoper). It arrives battle-tested but maybe just a little bit shrink-wrapped.

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Bye Bye Parsifal

I have no words, other than “Parsifal-Bye Bye Birdie Mashup.” Just watch it.

Sample comments from the YouTubes: “This is awesome.” “This is so wrong.” Both are true.

ETA: Credit where it’s due, I got this from the Parsifal issue of Opera Quarterly.

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