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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