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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Welcome!

jones lohengrin

Welcome to my newly WordPressed blog. I’m still fiddling with some of the settings and I know there are still some bugs so things might move around a bit in coming weeks. Some links will still go to posts on my old Blogspot site (which is still entirely functional), but I’m going to work on fixing this in my copious free time.

Please like my new Facebook page so you can hear about my new posts and comment there:

https://www.facebook.com/likelyimpossibilities/

(FYI, the Salome in the profile photo is Mary Garden and the cover photo is from this Tales of Hoffmann.)

If you have any problems, suggestions, or complaints about the new site, please register them in the comments here!

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Startup promises to disrupt opera

He’s on a boat

New startup Suspension has received Series A funding for a plan to reinvigorate and revolutionize the world of classical music and opera.

The tech world has not shown a great deal of interest in traditional arts, philanthropic or otherwise, but Suspension CEO Adam Jones’s 4-year old daughter recently started Suzuki viola and he believes it to be an untapped market. “Let’s disrupt opera!” he said.

At the Suspension TechCrunch presentation, Jones began casually, “I was so surprised to discover that all the music Ava plays on her viola is by dead composers.” (Artistic advisor Mason Bates seemed to be glowering at this point.) “So,” Jones continued, “what if they… weren’t dead?”

The presentation’s video flashed from black to white to black and the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 rang out.

“Recently, curators at a small museum in Torre del Lago were rummaging through a closet and found an old smoking jacket. Roll over, Beethoven’s hair, it’s time for Puccini’s fingernail clippings!” The audio obligingly played the opening phrases of Turandot.

The company has already sequenced the composer’s DNA and plans to have a baby Puccini by the end of 2016. It will take a while for him to mature, Jones said, but “these guys start early, right?” Musical styles might change in the intervening time, but Puccini 1.0’s music, Jones said, would surely remain popular.

“We’re planning on raising him on a diet of John Williams and Nicholas Sparks to shape his compositional style,” Jones added, noting that they were going to be careful about letting Puccini 2.0 hear some of Puccini 1.0’s weirder moments because “he’s not important because of Fanciulla.” The effort is being co-sponsored by the opera houses of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London, Paris, Milan, Vienna, and Barcelona. Puccini 2.0’s first project is a co-commissioned opera based on Gone Girl.

But before Puccini 2.0 will be able to tackle that subject, he reportedly already has a contract to participate in a forthcoming production of Madama Butterfly at the Oper Stuttgart. The house proclaimed themselves uninterested in his compositions but noted that a director wished to cast him as Trouble alongside Michael Volle as Peter Gelb/Sharpless, Anja Harteros as the Ghost of Maria Callas/the Spirit of Opera/Cio-Cio San, and Roberto Alagna.

Another branch of Suspension, in conjunction with Opera Extra-Rara, is working on an algorithm that will comb through primo ottocento literature and compose a new Donizetti opera approximately every six weeks. The project employs two musicology postdocs who unwisely claimed digital humanities expertise on their CVs and have to add ornamentation for a personal touch. The project also has two additional musicology postdocs to study the new works’ authenticity and two more postdocs to produce critical editions of the new works.

While Puccini 2.0 matures, the company plans to release an Über-like app, Viola, which will allow users to summon a violist to play for any occasion, such as a party, big presentation, or insomnia. The plan currently only offers violists but if successful or even if not successful will deploy bassoonists next. “The gig economy is nothing new for musicians,” Jones said.

Previously:
Met plans “old media” outreach
Met plans outreach, new Ring Cycle
Met announces new initiatives 

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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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Best of 2015

Hoffmann in Bregenz. Time marches onward.

This entry is probably the latest best of 2015 you will find in the opera blogosphere. I haven’t been writing much recently, mostly because I haven’t seen much recently. At the end of the semester it’s pretty hard to find time to get out of town and the Met’s December schedule didn’t feature anything that convinced me that the effort would be worthwhile. I am, however, going to see The Pearl Fishers tomorrow, so let’s wrap up 2015 before we step into the wild and crazy world of 2016. (2016 is starting with lots of exoticism. Plus ça change.)

I wasn’t happy with the amount I wrote here this year–I saw a few great performances (and a few not great but interesting ones) that I never wrote up for reasons contractual, logistical, and existential. I’m less inclined to knock off a few paragraphs about parking and barking than I have been in years past. But I don’t want to sound too gloomy, because I think that what I lost in quantity I more or less made up for in quality. Blog-wise, snappy one-liners about the Met bring in the crowds–particularly compared to my specialty, 1,500 words about Regietheater from a part of Austria that few non-EU folks can find on a map*–but for me, this year offered better, more interesting material than the last few. This was in part because I was highly selective and selected things that I was pretty sure I was going to like. It worked out OK, as far as I’m concerned!

Finally, what’s coming up? In the immediate future, Pearl Fishers plus some more Boston Symphony Orchestra with Renée Fleming, then Manon Lescaut and Elektra. I’m not planning on Roberto Devereux, but I do hope to make it to some opera in Boston. In the longer term, I’m thinking of moving this operation to WordPress because Blogger is effectively no longer under development and becoming unwieldy, but I predict this will be time-consuming and I don’t know when I will do it. Also, I will be writing a bit about a new class I’m teaching at Smith this spring: a history of opera and women from Traviata to Lulu!

Anyway:

Best of 2015, Opera
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Bregenz Festival
Lohengrin, Bayreuth
Elektra, Boston Symphony Orchestra
L’Orfeo, Bayerische Staatsoper

Best of 2015, Singers
Gerald Finley, Guillaume Tell (ROH) 
Christine Goerke, Elektra (BSO)
Barbara Hannigan, Written on Skin (Lincoln Center Festival)
Eric Owens, Don Carlo (Opera Philadelphia)
Klaus Florian Vogt, Lohengrin (Bayreuth)
Sonya Yoncheva, Otello (Met)


Best of 2015, Conductors
Antonio Pappano, Guillaume Tell (ROH)
Kirill Petrenko, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Bayreuth)
Andris Nelsons, Elektra (Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mass (Philadelphia Orchestra)


Names to Watch
Tobias Kehrer, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne)
Daniel Johansson, Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Bregenz)
Guanquan Yu, Turandot (second time in this category! why isn’t she famous yet?) (Bregenz)

Special Recognition
The Bernstein Mass in Philadelphia. It’s not a mass, it’s not an opera, who knows what the hell it is? I don’t think that most of it is very good. But I became sort of obsessed with it. (As did everyone else in my then department–almost all of us saw it and felt an unusual urge to talk it over with each other. Repeatedly. And we had to pass around the score around, because the library only has one copy.) It’s a pungent historical artifact and still powerful, relevant for many of exactly the same reasons, and kind of shocking.


Aleksandar Denic’s sets for Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth. This cycle left me with less than I had hoped (see below) but the sets were absolutely amazing in their detail, both hilarious and grotesque.

The newspapers,
Lulu. I wasn’t quite as big a fan of this production as most people, but I love the way it deployed newsprint as symbol.

Things I Forgot to Say
Guillaume Tell, which became famous as shock theater, was a very powerful performance which I was fortunate to see. It wasn’t consistent or even coherent, but it was serious and took the piece very seriously. Also, Gerald Finley has never been better, and he sets a very high standard. I was proud of what I wrote about it for the New York Times, but that wasn’t the place to make a critical statement. So here it is, late.

The Ring in Bayreuth
left me conflicted. I didn’t end up writing about all of it here because I did a piece on it for the New York Times (and then I moved from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts the following week!). I liked how earthy and strange and raw it was, and how genuinely funny. It had a weird emotional payoff that happened when you least expected it. But the acting was spotty, the symbols vague, and the whole thing misogynistic. And it didn’t stick with me–I took lots of notes but didn’t find myself thinking about it often compared to most of what I saw on the same trip.

Trovatore at the Met.
I went to this and I wrote about half a review which I didn’t post. It was a very emotional performance, but I didn’t feel like I could write about it in the effusive way it seemed to demand. I wasn’t touch with my fan self that weekend.

Exotica. I spent a lot of time this year thinking about and writing about how opera represents its others, from blackface to Turks to Delibes’s fromage-y Lakmé to a Turandot involving the Great Wall, clay soldiers, and every single other cliché. I don’t want to be a scold and I get tired of writing these things sometimes (especially when I saw most of those in the space of two weeks) but I’m not going to give up on this. The power dynamics are real and also very complicated.

Operas About Famous Dead People
. Opera Philadelphia did two big new operas! Great move. Unfortunately both featured more dull monumentalizing than story. At least the second, Yardbird, however tepid its drama, featured an original, intriguing score by Daniel Schnyder.

Not Much Met.
I had a hit with my pie chart analysis of the Met’s programming. But I only saw a handful of productions at the Met in 2015. I missed a few that I would have liked to see, most grievously the Iolanta/Bluebeard double bill, but I wish there had been a few more that would have inspired me to get on the train/bus to go to New York. (Remember: it takes me four hours to get to New York these days! And that’s four hous on a Peter Pan bus.) And some of what I did see didn’t make this list. Hopefully next season will be better! I still am really looking forward to Elektra and have some hope for Manon Lescaut.

Happy 2016!

*In March I’m giving a talk on this production–which, if you didn’t follow the link, is the Herheim Hoffmann–at the American Comparative Literature Association’s conference at Harvard!

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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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Chopin Without Piano

Barbara Wysocka and Michał Zadara’s Chopin Without Piano, which was performed at Philadelphia’s Fringe Arts last week, begins like an ordinary orchestral concert.  A conductor and a soloist bow in front of an orchestra; the soloist sits behind a grand piano, and the orchestra begins to play Chopin’s e minor piano concerto.

But, as its title suggests, Chopin Without Piano takes a turn when the piano would enter. Instead of playing, the “pianist” begins to declaim the piano part, words replacing the piano’s voice. What follows is a wide-ranging reflection on Chopin’s life, legacy, and place in official Polish culture–as well as, of course, consideration of the concertos themselves. The text, by Wysocka (who performs it as the “pianist”) and Zadara (who directed) is assembled from Chopin’s letters, writings about Chopin, writings from Chopin’s day, and more contemporary work.

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Elektric!

Christine Goerke, Andris Nelsons, Gun-Brit Barkmin

Does a concert Elektra dance? Does she stash her axe under the podium?


Elektra is performed in concert relatively frequently, and for good reason. (So is Salome, for the same reasons.) Strauss’s scores showcase a major orchestra and conductor to thrilling and very loud effect. It also has a drama whose decadent horrors—particularly the constant invocations of bodily decay and disease in Hofmannsthal’s libretto—can effectively be left to the imagination of the listener, an approach sometimes superior to the inevitable disappointment of ratty costumes and a dim unit set of suspiciously styrofoam rocks.

Productions of Elektra almost end up as screaming, over-the-top camp extravaganzas. And despite its comparatively minimalist visuals, this concert presentation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was actually no exception! I mean that, however, in the best possible way. Andris Nelsons and Christine Goerke made the kind of epic, high octane, extremely loud, occasionally touching opera that you don’t see nearly often enough. It’s the kind of excess that works because it’s done with utter conviction.

Even though there was no set, this was not an Elektra that left everything to the imagination. None of the singers used scores and it would be more accurate to call it semi-semi-staged. In the first scene, when Elektra glowers at the maids without saying anything, there’s no musical reason for her to appear onstage—and yet there she was, loitering between the first and second violins. Most of the stage directions were present in so much as to make the text intelligible—Chrysothemis raises her hands before Elektra asks her why she is doing so, and, yes, the performance ended with a fine stomping Elektra dance. There was, however, no axe, and the Fifth Maid escaped Maids #1-4 unscathed.

The floorplan was smartly devised: two clear areas on either side of the podium. (This put Nelsons further from the orchestra and he seemed to be relying on his baton rather his usual frequently hands-only style.) The amount of space was limited but allowed for Elektra and Chrystothemis to start their scene on either side of the podium, and then Elektra and Klytemnästra, and eventually Elektra and Orest, and well, for the most part Elektra doesn’t like being near anyone, really, and this was a good way of doing that. It also probably assisted in the performance’s exceptionally flattering balance. The singers were nearly always audible, even without the pit. (It is a far preferable setup to the platforms behind the orchestra that you sometimes get at Carnegie Hall.)

The center of the performance was Christine Goerke’s formidable Elektra. Wearing a tomato-red dress, she made Elektra crazed from the very beginning. Fortunately she has the vocal goods to back this up, singing with a huge, rich middle and lower voice. She doesn’t just sing this score tirelessly but also musically! The ending of the Recognition Scene, the moment of some of the role’s most lyrical writing, was both expressive and sung with a beautiful legato line. Her top notes are not as large as the rest of the voice but nonetheless have a piercing intensity.

It’s a performance that embraces the tradition of demented excess. When you start the opera at 11 you arguably don’t have anywhere to go but Goerke has the resources to sustain and vary that intensity for the whole opera. Her moments of sanity tended to be snarky: her asides to lovelorn Chrysothemis, some of her comments to her mother. At times, however, I wondered what a more internalized portrayal would look like, probably because I watched the Chéreau production on DVD (the one that is soon coming to the Met) before this performance. Without going into detail about that, it made Goerke’s approach seem a little Ryan Murphy, a little gothic. But commenting that Elektra is too much probably means that Elektra is not your thing.

As Chrysothemis, Gun-Brit Barkmin had a vibrant way with the text and the clearest diction in the cast. I could understand all the words and they sounded unusually spontaneous. Her voice is lean, focused, and pretty big, but I would have preferred more warmth and plushness in the sound in this particular role. Her top notes sound squeezed rather than open, and the end of her opening monologue didn’t really quite come off as it should. She is a striking performer (and her 1920s outfit was fabulous) but I don’t think it’s a beautiful voice.

As Klytämnestra, Jane Henschel was powerful, but sometimes her singing seemed more a collection of special effects–growls, whispers, sudden breaks into the upper register–than an organically coherent performance. Her Klytämnestra was a relatively by the books madwoman, effective but not as convincingly original. On the male side, Gerhard Siegel made a vivid cameo as Aegisth, establishing an oily character in no time and then vanishing almost as quickly. (Longtime comprimario all star Mark Schowalter did something similar in the even shorter role of the Young Servant.) In the longer role of Orest, James Rutherford got off to a nice, deep, Wagnerian sort of start but failed to build through the Recognition Scene as Goerke ran off with it. The gaggle of maids was solid and I was impressed by Mary Phillips as #3 (I don’t know the score that well but they were helpfully lined up in numerical order) and I happy to see and hear Nadine Secunde as the Overseer.

But the other major star of the performance was, of course, Nelsons and the orchestra. He is a major conductor and this was very exciting, tense conducting, perfectly milked at the climaxes and not afraid of the crunchier moments. He can get real texture in the intimate moments, notably the fluttering winds in Klytämnestra’s monologue. The brass sounded terrific, but I do think there’s a missing ingredient from Nelsons and the orchestra’s Straussian recipe: something about the strings. They were there and they were doing their thing, but Nelsons’ Strauss is almost all glower and no glow. That radiance has to peek out occasionally, and it’s usually in the violins. Perhaps this is because I still have the sound of the Wiener Staatsoper faintly in my ears, but I wish he had found more of those moments that gives some light to this violent score.

Nelsons and co. repeat this Elektra tonight in Boston and in New York next week and you absolutely need to see if it you can. The Met’s Elektra this spring is going to be very different. And did anyone else notice this YNS Elektra later this fall? Hmm.


Strauss,
Elektra. Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Boston, 10/15/15. Conducted by Andris Nelsons with Christine Goerke

photos copyright Boston Symphony Orchestra/Liza Voll

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