Have swan, will travel

Warning, I have been struck by the blogging spirit again. I have a lot of notes and half-written reviews in my notebook, so I may be struck again later this week. Sorry for the relative lack of freshness, but think, on a scholarly writing scale this is still lightning fast!!! So I went to see Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House and just another warning, it’s going to take me a few minutes to get to the point here. As a very infrequent blogger I am allowing myself the luxury of taking my time.

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David Alden hosts a Ballo in maschera at the Met

The Met’s taut, spooky new Ballo in maschera is the best new production this house has seen in some time. David Alden has finally brought his trademark surreal, minimalist film noir aesthetic to New York. Welcome to the early 1990’s, Met– the age when we all were scandalized by David Alden and thought he was crazy (not including me, because I was in elementary school and not going to the opera yet,* but you get the idea). But a production like this is always welcome, however belated, and compared to most of what we see at the Met it seems very fresh and modern. There’s nothing particularly shocking or radical about it; it’s certainly watered down from his European work, but it’s good drama and it would be a shame if the plentiful time-delay boos present at the premiere (I suspect due to the production’s deficit of horses and bayonets) detracted from its very real merits. The singing isn’t uniformly fabulous but it’s probably one of the better casts that can be assembled for this opera, and they are trying very hard.

Verdi, Un ballo in maschera. Metropolitan Opera, 11/8/2012. New production premiere directed by David Alden, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuehl, lights by Adam Silverman, choreography by Maxine Braham. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Marcelo Àlvarez (Gustavo), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Count Ankarströrm/Renato), Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia), Kathleen Kim (Oscar), Dolora Zajick (Ulrica). 

I can’t describe this opera better than Alden did himself in a recent interview: “the bizarre combination of serious political material, high Italian melodrama based around the hackneyed stuff of marital infidelity, and an almost operetta-like lightness of being, is experimental and dislocated and sets this apart from his [Verdi’s] other masterpieces.” Ballo is an opera much beloved by the scholarly set (and also Luigi Dallapiccola), who celebrate its radical mix of styles and apparently impressive motivic integration. I’ve always had an “mmmkay” reaction to this because Ballo has never convinced me onstage–the mixture of comic and melodramatic styles seems like a bad idea and it’s never had any emotional resonance, possibly because its characters don’t get much exposition. The music is frequently brilliant, but Amelia is a hysteric, King Gustavo a well-meaning doofus, Renato a bore, and smug coloratura soprano page Oscar one of the most annoying characters in all of opera. It has not been an opera to attract many Regie types, either, with Calixto Bieito’s notorious toilet production (which I haven’t seen) being a notable exception. At the Met, Alden’s replaces a traditional, heavy production by Piero Faggioni whose most memorable moment was, when I last saw it, Dmitri Hvorostovsky getting tangled up in his own cape.

Alden’s production does an impressive job with the first issue, coherence, but I’m afraid still nothing on the emotional front. Maybe it’s just that sort of opera. The “it’s all a dream!” trope might be, er, tired but for an opera this jumbled it’s a smart move and Alden deals with the changing tone with aplomb. We open with King Gustavo, dressed in a vaguely 1930’s/40’s suit, dozes off in a chair. An enormous Baroque painting of Icarus falling from the sky hovers over the stage, and Oscar enters flapping a pair of white feathered wings. This is kind of ingenious, because he evokes so many things–the painting above, Cupid (remember that Alden has directed a metric ton of Baroque opera in Europe), and the death figures who will finally appear in the finale. The walls are covered in hypnotic wallpaper (Alden and set director Paul Steinberg are wallpaper connoisseurs second only to Richard Jones), the stage steeply raked. The time and place are ambiguous, and never become any clearer. (This seemed to bother lots of people but I’m OK with it?) Gustavo and some other characters will hang out in this chair periodically–also genius because Alden has given any tenor his dream: a chance to sit down, take a break, and have a drink of water while onstage.

The dreary setting constantly threatens to break, with the music, into exuberant comedy. Office drones sit at stainless steel desks but Oscar incites them to dance; a worried group of citizens visits crazy old lady Ulrica only to have some fun-loving sailors bring the thing to life. (Ulrica later pulls a memento mori skull from her purse to show Amelia.) Sometimes it doesn’t really make sense, but Alden can also keep the action straightforward and tight when need be. Renato and Gustavo’s relationship is clearly drawn early on–Renato is worried that his friend might be a little dim– and Renato’s dismissal of Ulrica’s prophecy has a clear undercurrent of denial. Purists will probably be offended at the lack of any gallows in Act 2, but the Personenregie is engrossing and the entrance of the conspirators from various trapdoors and upstage genuinely creepy. Act 3 begins in a claustrophobically tiny white room, featuring a physically intense confrontation between Renato and Amelia–the photo of Gustavo on the wall might seem kind of cheesy, but it makes the thing work. The ball features, on Met standards, remarkably OK dancing, and the ending suggests that everyone is still trapped.

While it still didn’t quite convince me that Ballo is a masterwork (I know, I know, but I don’t feel it), it’s a compelling ride with the appeal of one of those crazy old B-grade noirs where all sorts of random stuff happens and none of the characters are terribly complex but it still keeps us involved. (Have you ever seen Detour? It’s bananas. Something like that.) I’m not sure if the Icarus stuff really adds the symbolic heft that is intended–OK, so Gustavo is a king who is taking increasingly treacherous risks, but so what?–but it doesn’t hurt and adds a note of fantasy to the  disjointed nature of the setting. Alden gets impressive performances from his cast, most of whom are not quite known for their nuanced and natural acting abilities but convincingly make a real show here.

Marcelo Alvarez worked hard all evening in the long and difficult role of Gustavo, concentration written on his face. He managed to act (and dance!) pretty well, only occasionally slipping into the cliched gestures that usually constitute his entire performance, but the effort expended was a little too obvious. Similarly, his lyric tenor was pushed to its limits, producing an often-pleasant bright sound at the top but unstable and unsure of pitch in the lower reaches. He has a short musical attention span, tending to sing in words and phrases rather than paragraphs and lacking a long legato line. This was not a problem of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, but he was also pushing his voice and frequently sounded blustery. His voice has an absolutely glorious, velvety sweet spot around middle C, but the rest of the range sounds strained. The final section of “Eri tu” was his strongest singing of the evening–one suspected he had been saving his voice–and showcased his excellent phrasing. Acting-wise he was suitably intimidating and more nuanced than his usual cape-twirling, and also managed to completely outclass his tenorial colleague in looking good wearing a fedora.

On the ladies’ side, Sondra Radvanovsky sang a knockout “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which sits in her English horn-like lower range and built beautifully over the course of the aria. I wish the rest of her singing had been as musical, but like Alvarez she often sounded somewhat raw and blunt. Her distinctive vibrato makes her tone instantly recognizable, and her intonation only occasionally sagged flat. Amelia is a hard character because we never know who she is, and Radvanovsky didn’t really solve this problem, but she did seem earnest. Kathleen Kim sounded sweet and bright as Oscar and darted around as demanded. I find this character insufferable but she almost made Oscar bearable, not leaning excessively into the tra la las. Dolora Zajick ,Queen of Chest Voice, made a mighty noise as Ulrica and didn’t really act too much. I do want to carry around a skull in my purse too, though.

Fabio Luisi conducted like someone who doesn’t mind being left to the end of the review. I am always wishing for Pappano in this repertory but Luisi was perfectly able, keeping things efficiently moving if not always nail-biting. I wished for juicier melodrama and more contrast but it was clean and competent and the orchestra sounded really excellent.

It might not be a reinvention, and if you’ve seen any of Alden’s work before you basically know what to expect from this one, but it’s a solid production that makes sense of the piece, and I hope the Met audiences give it a fair chance.

Ballo continues through December.

*I made my first acquaintance with David Alden when visiting Munich at the tail end of the Peter Jonas era at the Bay Staats. Baroque mayhem!

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La finta giardiniera: Weeding needed

Mozart’s early opera La finta giardiniera is a problem work.  Whether its wild mixture of silly and serious is confusing or just confused is a matter for debate, but it’s surely a challenging piece to stage.  David Alden’s new Theater an der Wien production takes it very seriously indeed, probably far more seriously than Mozart ever did.  The result is grim, unfunny, and ugly to boot.  After three and a half hours watching his emotionally damaged zombies sing rage aria after rage aria, I wanted to sing one too.  I still think this opera can be a delight, and found this production hugely disappointing.

Luckily this was partly redeemed by high quality musicianship.  Despite variable voices, René Jacobs conducted a rhythmically incisive performance full of dramatic spontaneity, and the Freiburger Barockorchester is so good they almost made the evening worth it just by themselves.

Mozart, La finta giardiniera.  Theater an der Wien, 12/11/10.  New production premiere by David Alden, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Doey Lüthi, lights by Wolfgang Goebbel, choreography by Beate Vollack.  Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by René Jacobs with Sophie Karthäuser (Sandrina/Violante), Topi Lehtipuu (Il Contino Belfiore), Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Arminda), Michael Nagy (Nardo/Roberto), Jeffrey Francis (Il Podestà), Sunhae Im (Serpetta), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Cavaliere Ramiro)

The central event in David Alden’s staging happens before the opera starts: Il Contino Belfiore’s attempted (he thinks successful) murder of his lover Violante.  Her disguise as the gardening girl Sandrina is explained by Alden as the result of extreme trauma, and, wandering around in a bloody wedding dress with a vacant stare and a large pair of gardening shears, she does look like she’s been through hell.  All the other characters, similarly unlucky in love, are going through the same anguish in varying degrees.

By putting all the characters in liminal emotional states, I think Alden wanted to try to explain their strange actions and the many coincidences of the convoluted plot. The problem is that this plot that we see onstage is basically a buffo farce.  The trauma Alden has put front and center doesn’t hang over the music or libretto in any perceptible way, and the gloom feels totally wrong.  And while he does differentiate slightly between the seria characters and the buffo ones (as Mozart’s music does), for example by putting the seria characters on a staircase to indicate their higher social status, for the most part they are strangely uniform wrecks, and all so wrapped up in their own psychoses they rarely interact with each other.  Love, flirtation, and seduction are shoved aside in favor of jealousy and rage.

The sets are minimal: various neon-colored backdrops, some sliding walls, a few chairs, and more ascending and descending light fixtures than seem necessary.  It is not an attractive production.  The setting is nominally Italy in the 1930’s, but this means nothing more than the general sense of the costumes.  Why?  According to the note, Alden sees the Podestà Don Anchise as a mini-Mussolini, wishing to control everyone and failing.  I did not see this in the staging, though, the Podestà is a comic old man supporting role and he didn’t seem any more complicated or important here than usual.  Also, he was not comic, and that was a problem.  Arminda seems to be an aviatrix (???).  That’s all I got.  (I also must refer you to James Jorden’s excellent essay on time-traveling productions, if you have not already read it.  This is a dire example of the Carmen type, only without the realism.  The Mussolini thing seems the be the sole reason for this setting, and if I hadn’t read about that in the program it would have totally gone over my head.)

The garden is never more than suggested, though Sandrina relives her attempted murder Edward Scissorhands-style (after Cardillac, I am convinced that this film is the only metatext you need for opera in Vienna this fall) by cutting a murderous topiary.  In the garden, things are kept more or less under control, in the forest of the Act 2 finale, the characters involuntarily lose their inhibitions, I think?  (For Arminda, this involves a superhero costume.  There aren’t any pictures.)  Nice nature metaphor, but the problem is that this doesn’t really work with the plot, which is pure running around in the dark and bumping into people silliness.

The most surprising thing was how Alden’s fantasy for absurd comedy seems to have deserted him.  He knows how to engagingly stage an aria, there’s always something to watch, but other than some obvious physical comedy the invention is minimal, and it seems like overlaid schtick.  By giving into stylized blocking in the Act 1 finale, he confuses the plot where he could have done a lot to clarify the character relationships, and the Act 2 finale turns strangely static.   In both, the plot developments fly by without dramatization.  Indeed, Alden’s concept of a dream landscape seems to preclude the advancement of events in most forms.

In short, I think Alden took this piece far too seriously.  It’s very long, more cuts might have helped, and by reading it so deeply he extinguished the farcical fun that is the libretto’s main asset, leaving us with a confusing, dour psychodrama. 

But while this score isn’t quite top-drawer, B-grade Mozart is better than A-grade almost anyone else.  The Freiburger Barockorchester is wonder.  They have a lovely reedy sound, perfect for the acrobatics of this music, and play a precision and refinement to rival any non-historical practice group.  To hear this music played with so much rhythmic life, transparency, and tonal color is worth any pumpkin-mangling going on onstage.  René Jacobs elaborated the wind parts a bit, as is his wont, and the arias in particular sounded busier than usual.  I don’t know this opera well enough to be specific, at times I found it fussy but mostly it was a wash.  I also don’t know the opera well enough to say whether Jacobs’s tempos were conventional or not, but with the exception of some plodding in the Act 2 finale they felt well-judged if on the fleet side, and he is a master of long-range dramatic pacing.

He also is a master of conducting singers.  The cast sang with a dramatic spontaneity and commitment that still felt perfectly musical, an amazing balance for Mozart.  In the title role Sophie Karthäuser has a lyric sound that is just the right size for the role and sang with style and confidence, though her tone can turn wiry and sharp at the top.  Topi Lehtipuu as Belfiore has a clear and really beautiful, though small, voice, but sounded strained at higher volumes.  His Contino was vaguely hipster-esque and subject to most of the production’s acrobatics, which didn’t bother his singing at all.

The unexpected highlight was Michael Nagy as Nardo, Sandrina’s servant, with a flexible, silky baritone voice and more comic élan than the production knew what to do with (granted, that isn’t a considerable quantity).  He will be Wolfram at Bayreuth next summer and definitely is one to watch.  Jeffrey Francis sounded thin and character-tenor-esque as the Podestà, and failed to be funny in this buffo part, but I wouldn’t blame him for this.  I’m not sure if Arminda is the best use of Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s skills, she has the right temperament but seems overqualified in most other departments with some showy interpolations.  Sunhae Im as the cigar-smoking soubrette Serpetta was a bright spot, and was amusing and sounded sweet, though her low range did not always project.  Marie-Claude Chappuis drifted in and out as Ramiro, excellent in lyric sections but lacking the power for the more emphatic seria music this character gets.

Massive booing for Alden and the production team at the end, cheers for everyone else.  I think this can be a great evening at the opera when produced right, though it’s always going to be a kind of weird one.  I came to know it through this absolutely adorable Salzburg Festival production, which takes place in a Home Depot-like garden store and is like a double dose of happy pills.  It does not take anything seriously at all.  I highly recommend it.

If you want to hear this performance, it is being broadcast on November 13 (AKA today) at 19:30 on Ö1.

Bows by Bad Photography is Us (production team in the first row, cast and conductor in the second):

Photos copyright Theater an der Wien/Wilfried Hösl.  Bows photo by me.

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