Nuremberg’s Got Talent

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

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I’ll tickle your catastrophe

I think it was W.C. Fields who said that sharing the stage with children and animals is a bad plan. The Met could well have listened. Their new Falstaff is nearly stolen by a placid, grass-eating horse, whose blithe equine indifference to his surroundings is a proper illustration of Falstaff’s character. The rest is, pace my Shakespearean headline, hardly catastrophic–Levine is Levine and this is one of his favorites, the hard-working cast sings pretty well, and Robert Carsen’s production is thoroughly professional–but the horse is the closest we get to the soul of wit. (I’m basically saying what Intermezzo already did. As usual, she’s right.)

Verdi, Falstaff. Met Opera, 12/6/2013. New production premiere directed by Robert Carsen, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuehl, lights by Carsen and Peter Van Praet. Conducted by James Levine with Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff), Angela Meade (Alice), Stephanie Blythe (Quickly), Lisette Oropesa (Nanetta), Paolo Fanale (Fenton), Franco Vassallo (Ford)

Carsen is the ultimate internationalist; he’s everywhere and can be trusted to put on a “modern,” competent show that (with the exception of his Candide) won’t, um, startle the horses. He’s certainly a director with visual trademarks: he likes the 1950s, giant beds, dramatic shadows, lots of chairs, and carefully tailored costumes. (See this and this.) Some of his productions can be very beautiful and insightful, but this unfortunately isn’t one of them. The 1950s setting makes sense: Falstaff is a fallen, anachronistic aristocrat and the Fords and Pages are new money. Each scene contains food: the tavern, a chic restaurant for the ladies (where Fenton is a waiter), a men’s club, Alice’s giant kitchen, and finally a banquet in the woods. A wooden wall looms behind most of the scenes, and it’s in general a handsome production. But for an opera already weighted down by a lot of fat jokes, it’s unclear what this culinary focus really adds. It’s kind of one-note in a tiresome way, for an opera that is anything but. (There’s something about a gastro-centric postwar setting–feast after a time of famine, etc. Look at Albert Herring. But Falstaff isn’t Hänsel und Gretel.)

Fortunately, Carsen gets the giant bed out of the way in the first scene of this one. Falstaff starts the opera in it. Exactly what that bed is doing in the middle of a tavern escapes me, which points to the production’s larger problem of tone and setting. The opera turns on a dime between slapstick, romance, and poignancy, but the production, while good-natured, isn’t so agile. There are some funny bits–most notably when Ford leads in a giant crowd of men to search and trash Alice’s kitchen–but this is a production with surprisingly little wit or wisdom, unsure of what it is about. The characters have little shape and it’s just not that funny. Even obvious joke moments like Ford and Falstaff walking through the door together and Falstaff sneaking up on Alice don’t land as clear punch lines. (There’s also some bad blocking–Nanetta keeps having to get up from her seat in the restaurant and cross behind Alice so she can see the conductor.) There’s no magic in the bare wooden walls and stage of the forest, and it’s unclear why the chorus is an army of be-antlered Falstaff doubles. It ends with lighting the house for the fugue. Raising the house lights to go “YOU TOO!” is the cheapest Brechtian shortcut a director can pull, and here it’s too little too late. It moves along, but all the Carsen tropes are dressed up without anywhere to go.

(I must note that I vastly preferred Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production, which I saw in May and unfortunately didn’t have time to write about. It’s also set in the 1950s, but is decidedly more surreal, inventive, and funnier, including things like a running joke involving a cat and a giant cabbage patch. The characters are given real personalities and the craft fair magic of the fairies is beautifully human.)

Falstaff is a James Levine signature piece and he brings a bounce and light to the music that was missing from the production (particularly in the last act). It’s quick, light, and transparent, but quiet when it needs to be. That being said, there were a few ensemble coordination issues in Act 1, particularly between the two sides of the stage (men on one side, women on the other). Things improved.

The cast is reasonably strong. Ambrogio Maestri, however, was not a particularly interesting Falstaff. He’s got the big round voice for it, and the round shape, but while musically fine it was a one-dimensional characterization, little more than a teddy bear.* He made little of the “una parola” section of the “Onore” monologue, and seemed reluctant to play the forrest scene for anything but laughs. This was definitely the first time I’ve seen Ford as the more interesting character. Franco Vassallo was genuinely funny in the Signor Fontana scene (wearing a cowboy outfit), and managed to make the final scene something of a Figaro-Count junior version. His singing was solid and warm-toned, but sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. As Fenton, Paolo Fanale had a very beautiful sound in the serenade in Act 3, but was completely drowned out in the ensembles.

As Alice Ford, Angela Meade put in a valiant effort, acting-wise, and this was by far the most animated performance I’ve seen from her. She doesn’t seem to have much in the way of comic timing–she needs to go way bigger in her reactions–but the production didn’t give her much to work with. Vocally, it’s kind of a thankless role and doesn’t show off all she can do, but she has a sweet and youthful tone and managed to punch out the staccato bits strongly. In contrast, Nanetta’s music is a gift to any light soprano, and the Met has fortunately cast Lisette Oropesa, possibly the best singer they have in this Fach. She sang “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” with beautifully light, clear, crystalline tone, and her high notes hang in the air forever. On the low side, Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly sounded like a very loud trombone. This role is her ideal Fach as well–she’s much better here than she is in higher Verdi stuff. The supporting roles were fine, with one of the tenors sounding really honking nasal loud in the fugue (I think it was Keith Jameson as Bardolfo, who was pretty loud the whole way through).

This production is an import from the ROH Covent Garden. This is the third new production this season and all three have been imported from London–Onegin and Two Boys both came from the English National Opera. This seems like a bit much. Why can’t the Met develop its own aesthetic rather than import another city’s wholesale? That being said, apparently Des McAnuff was originally slated to direct a new Falstaff, and this one was swapped after his disastrous Faust (which was itself an import form, yep, London). So I guess we dodged a bullet here.

See you at Feuersnot next week. I’ll add more photos to this post when I can find them, you can see photos of the London cast over at Intermezzo.

*[Insert Harold Bloom critique of Merry Wives here.] Someday I’m going to direct a production of Falstaff that is set in an academic department, with Falstaff as a Bloom-like figure, Alice a clever full professor, Nanetta as a grad student, and Mistress Quickly the stalwart department coordinator.

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All the ladies are doing it

I rolled my eyes a little bit when James Levine was recently described in the Times as “somebody who may be the greatest opera conductor in history.” But after last night’s Così, the fourth performance in his triumphant return to the Met, I can at least understand the thinking behind it (though I still don’t agree). He’s an institution here, and Mozart at the Met hasn’t sounded anywhere near this good in years. It was impeccably clear, energetic, and paced, imbued with an air and light that no one else gets out of the Met orchestra. Everything is phrased and shaped, and yet it all sounds spontaneous and fresh.

The rest of the performance bore the signature of some of the less happy legacies of the Levine era: a boring production and singing that was fine but not quite star quality. The production is particularly egregious. Leslie Koenig’s 1996 staging is cartoonish, unsubtle, and offers much unfunny comic business, making a very poor contrast to the sublimity of the music. It flattens this ambiguous, intense libretto to its lowest common rom-com denominator. (Such a seemingly low opinion of the libretto has a venerable history in Così reception, but this sort of staging seems to proceed from an a priori assumption of triviality, and never constructs a coherent relationship with the overqualified score.)

It’s also just bad theater. The look is traditional, and the blocking in the first act frequently mirrors both the sisters and the men–problematic, I think, for a production already short on dramatic differentiation. Its brand of comedy involves having the Albanians spend an awful lot of time twirling their robes around. One great thing about Da Ponte’s libretti is how they always begin in media res. But while the men are obviously in the midst of a heated conversation when the curtain rises, here they lounge still and wordless for the whole introduction.

(I’m sorry to sound like a broken record here, but you have 70-some days left to watch the Michael Haneke production of Così on the Arte website, and if you haven’t yet, go do it now because you owe it to yourself. It’s a brutal and chilly take on an opera that I’ve (as you may have surmised) never found very funny.)

The cast offered some lovely moments, but none overshadowed the conducting, quite. Fiordiligi is a fiendishly difficult role and Susanna Philips handled many of the technical challenges with aplomb and a silvery soprano. But she isn’t a natural comedian or a big personality, and lacks the bravura to make “Come scoglio” really take off. Where she excelled was “Per pietà” and onwards, where she traced Fiordiligi’s descent with simplicity and honesty. Maybe she’s just more of a Mimì type. As her sister, Isabel Leonard was not impressive, sounding rather vinegary and showing little in the way of stage presence.

As Despina, Danielle De Niese had the most acting sparkle in the cast, but didn’t have much to play off against, and the performance ended up seeming a bit effortful. Her singing tended towards the raw and more Mozartean elegance would have been nice, but Despina’s music isn’t “Dove sono.” She was certainly a brighter presence than Maurizio Muraro was as Don Alfonso, who started off as a low energy Dulcamara and went downhill from there. This is a plum role and not difficult to cast, why not find someone with a little more wit?

The other men were much better. Matthew Polenzani remains a superb Mozart tenor with sweet tone and great musicality, and did the most glamorous singing of the evening. He can actually make “Ah! lo veggio” sound like the walk in the park that, in the libretto, it literally is. Rodion Pogorossov was a fine Gugliemo and almost funny, though this role always seems to have drawn the short straw.

Despite great unevenness, the conducting alone was enough to make this a gratifying performance, and I recommend you go if you can.

Mozart, Così fan tutte, Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2013.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Met.

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Die Walküre from the Met: Die Maschine ohne Ghost

I went to the Live from HD broadcast of Die Walküre on Saturday! For writing about this I recruited the help of NYC correspondent “Pélleas,” who saw it live. We chatted for a little while on Sunday. Or, a lot while. The Machine! James Levine, actually conducting! Valkyries falling on their asses! All right ahead!

Zerbinetta: Just to be really clear, I went to the broadcast on May 14 in Vienna in the romantic surroundings of the Donauzentrum shopping mall and you saw it live at the opera house in New York on…
Pélleas: April 28th. So, how did it come across in the film version? I saw the Rheingold movie broadcast and I must say that the whole effect of the planks worked much better in person.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, I hope so. (I didn’t see Rheingold at all.) Because it was really weak on the broadcast. It was all shot in closeup so you could only see the whole machine occasionally (when it did shit) and the rest of the time it basically looked like a really expensive projection screen.
Pélleas: The planks basically are an expensive projection screen, but during the couple of set piece moments that they have they can be very spectacular. I found their transformation from a snowy wasteland to a forrest of trees in the beginning very cool. And the bit with Brünnhilde being left on the mountain in her ring of fire was also really cool. That is, when you weren’t worried for the safety of the stunt double given the injury that happened because of The Machine earlier in the night (more about that later).

Zerbinetta: OH you were at THAT one. Anyway, I was very disappointed in the design work. It looked strangely unfinished, like there was the machine and nothing else. Projections always look bad close up but it seemed like they forgot to add any kind of texture or life to any of the stage pictures. Hunding’s table looked like it came from Ikea. Too many smooth flat surfaces. It was just all SO DAMN LITERAL and unimaginative. And not just the design.
Pélleas: Yep. I totally agree with you there. The only time they tried to give some sort of originality to anything it came off as really tacky. And there was basically no original psychological insight into any of the characters or the staging.
Zerbinetta: It was also very very static. Like the Ring I saw in Vienna in April didn’t have much insight either but at least everything kept moving pretty well.
Pélleas: About the accident, though. One of the valkyries took a hard landing sliding off of her horse. I didn’t see it, so I’m not sure how she landed, but I heard it. She either caught her leg in the stage at the end, or landed really hard on her butt. She exited the stage immediately, returned a couple of minutes later (to applause), and sang her part. But she didn’t appear at the curtain call. (Ed. note: she was OK.)
Zerbinetta: I thought the end really lost the emotional thread when Brünnhilde left the stage to be replaced by a double. You need that farewell ritual to be about the character.
Pélleas: A lot of people complained about that, but I didn’t really mind it. I was still emotionally invested in the scene, because the music was simply so beautiful, and the stunt double did a good job of imitating the way her body was slouched into Wotan.
Zerbinetta: The problem with the ending in the HD was they didn’t want to show the double close up to show that it was a double so the entire opera is in closeups and then HELLO wide angle!
Pélleas: Well, it’d be hard to get the majesty of the entire set if you did closeups. And that is the one moment where the set as a whole really shines.
Zerbinetta: The switch was disconcertingly abrupt. Didn’t go with the music. Especially when Levine’s magic fire was burning soooo slowly. So about the conducting. ????
Pélleas: Everyone was of course totally enthused that Levine was alive enough to conduct. I was generally extremely pleased with his conducting.
Zerbinetta: I liked bits of it but overall it felt kind of too slack, especially the really slow Act 2. Act 3 was majestic, though. Orchestra sounded good, though I suspect I am spoiled by Vienna. How was the balance between singers and orchestra?
Pélleas: It was generally very good. I didn’t have any trouble hearing any of the singers, and vocally it seemed to be a much better evening than the opening night performance that got reviewed. Westbroek was able to sing through the entire evening, and she was marvelous. Her final notes simply soared above the orchestra with such great volume and power, for such a long time. A.— and I looked to each other with grins on our faces. I think it was the vocal highlight of the evening.

Zerbinetta: I thought Westbroek sounded glorious, she has this shining and effortless tone that is just amazing and visceral. But she looked nervous and hesitant. Anna Nicole wasn’t a good use of her vocal talents, but it did show she can be a much better actress than she was as Sieglinde here. My biggest surprise was Terfel, I think. I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a fun ham, but this was really subtle and powerful and beautiful. Also his German and use of the text were just gorgeous. Usually I think Wotan is a big bore and I didn’t this time.
Pélleas: He was really great. He kept me emotionally engaged during his Act 2 monologue, which is one of my favorite parts of the opera, but one that is really easy to make boring. And the absolute disdain that he packed into his command to Hunding to die was chilling.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, but the staging of the fight was pathetic. Lots of people standing around.
Pélleas: Believe it or not, it actually came off as exciting live. But that’s because so much else was boring…. And let’s be honest, none of the singers were really required to act in this production. The emotional engagement they produced through their acting was really in spite of the production, not because of it.
Zerbinetta: I think the idea is that there’s a spectacular background for the singers to do their thing in front of, but really, you need more directorial interpretation get the Ring to hold together and get the singers to act together instead of independently. I think it’s lifted out of Chéreau but I loved when Siegmund recognized Wotan and then died in his arms at the very end of Act 2. Probably the only theatrical moment between two characters I thought was really emotionally genuine and touching.

Pélleas: If only we could bring in Freyer to explain the emotional/mythological resonances of these characters BETWEEN each other! A good example is Fricka’s scene with Wotan. She does a great job of projecting wounded power while asserting that her pride will never be completely killed (and Blythe was amazing as always) and Terfel did a great job of expressing his descent into madness and grief at that moment – seeing all of his plans unravel because of his own hubris and his need to obey his wife’s command. Both acted convincingly enough in that scene, but they were pretty much doing it independently of each other.
Zerbinetta: The lack of detailed direction really showed in the closeups. Everyone spent a lot more time looking towards Levine that they did at each other. Also, that awkward dinner scene in Act 1 with everyone sitting around the table giving each other side-eye including very avuncular Hunding and you couldn’t see them below the knees? Looked like a TV show to me. This TV show is super-dramatic, it puts the opera back in soap opera, and it is called “One Tree Sword.” Ratings, um, gold! Even against Eurovision. (I am still sad I missed Eurovision.)
Pélleas: Yeah, hated that staging. A.— tried to say that it made it more emotional when they declared their love for each other and they came out so you could see them below the knees, but I don’t buy it. At least Kaufmann seemed to not always be looking at Levine. And he was the one person to be constantly moving about, as if he actually was young and spry. And the hottness factor and great voice doesn’t hurt.
Zerbinetta: You are obviously aware that Jonas Kaufmann is the Bestest is one of the guiding principles of this blog. I liked him a lot, the Wälses weren’t actually that great but the lyrical parts were, dramatic but also subtle. And the Todesverkündigung was so beautiful. From him. Not so much from Voigt.
Pélleas: I found Voigt’s voice beautiful enough (and Jonas’s absolutely heartbreaking and thrilling). But it didn’t help that the WORST STAGING EVER happened during the annunciation of death.
Zerbinetta: It made me want to run home and watch shirtless Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones on YouTube in the Chéreau. The horns at the beginning of that scene always give me chills. It is in fact my favorite scene in all of Wagner.
Pélleas: You can’t have a moment of such gravity be announced with Brunhilde simply WALKING onto the stage looking exactly as she had before. Even the drab and literal Schenk staging had her wear a cool warrior’s mask to give that scene some amount of gravitas.
Zerbinetta: I agree! Also, why didn’t Sieglinde wake up at some point considering how Siegmund was shaking her? This is a production that leads you towards silly literalism, because its terms are so literal. And yet its look is so unfinished plus the giant traditional costumes that if I were seeing it in Germany I would suspect some weak-ass Verfremdung was going on. But about Voigt: she was miles better than the Brünnhilde I saw in Vienna in April and I liked her sassiness, but I didn’t like her tonal color much, often sour below the top notes. And after the OK hojotoho her German was pretty bad and she didn’t put across the meaning of the text like Terfel and Kaufmann did (Blythe was also interpretively bland, I thought, but THAT SOUND). And there were a few moments wherein she grinned inappropriately when I thought she really needed a director to get her to put together the emotional beats more clearly.

Pélleas: A lot of the more intimate moments could have been much more emotional if thought had been given to him. I think Lepage recognized this and tried to do something interesting during the long monologues (Sigmund’s in Act I and Wotan’s in Act II), but his solution was to do more of his techno wizardry. For the record I disliked the shadow fight in Act I because it was so damn literal and liked the Eye of Color in Act II simply because it was less literal. Except when it mentioned the Ring and an image that was probably licensed from New Line popped up. As if we didn’t already know that Lord of the Rings and Wagner are the same thing.
Zerbinetta: But you had A.— with you, she could probably read the Elvish on the Ring (she is going to kill me if she reads this).
Pélleas: haha
Zerbinetta: Bechtolf did the shadow thing in much less elaborate fashion in Vienna’s Ring, in some of the same places even, and I thought the same thing. Doesn’t add anything, and distracts from the fact that the act of narration itself and the viewpoint of the narrator is a loaded concept in Wagner. Siegmund and Wotan’s stories aren’t neutral exposition. Neither director seemed to appreciate this (though there was the eye, implying some kind of viewpoint, oh damn, I’m just going to go back to Herheim while I still can), but Lepage has so many bells and whistles that it is less obvious that he has nothing to say and an equally simplistic view of the piece. My concern is that this staging has no soul. The Machine lacks a Ghost (yes I thought of that line partway through the show last night).
Pélleas: The only emotional investment is what each individual singer brings to the table. Which can sometimes be sufficient for individual scenes, but doesn’t lead to a sense of continuity across the opera(s). To be clear though, I left the opera house extremely happy and excited, as did A.—. Because the singing was almost uniformly excellent (or above par) the orchestra exciting, and the staging had some really exciting moments that can overshadow the drabness. But it’s like a contact high, when you think about it afterwards you realize there wasn’t really much there. Whereas with Freyer I was thinking for days or weeks afterwards and kept having fun doing so. I’m jealous of you for seeing the whole Freyer Ring btw. In case you didn’t already know that 😉
Zerbinetta: Freyer yes! As for Lepage I kind of had a similar reaction but more moderate (I guess because I didn’t get the big effects very well). The singing really was very good and the performers involving by sheer force of will. But all flash and little depth. More broadly, I guess that’s what bothers me most about the Met’s current artistic direction. It’s so anti-intellectual. I mean not everything has to be hard but they seem so unwilling to challenge audiences at all. (I’m saying this from the happy position of publicly funded Europe.)
Pélleas: I don’t think we’re going to be getting any Regie anytime soon unfortunately
Zerbinetta: Tchnerniakov is on Met Futures for Prince Igor! That’s hard-core Regie right there. Decker’s Traviata seemed to go well and that’s legit Regie. So I have some hope but mostly for imported productions.
Pélleas: But there’s also the option of genuinely beautiful. The Met’s staging of Tristan for example isn’t particularly difficult, but the austere set and props has a beautiful aesthetic that Lepage lacks, precisely because it doesn’t try to be literal.
Zerbinetta: There definitely is a place for genuinely beautiful austere productions. I just wish we could have a place for all sorts of productions that could co-exist happily like a little operatic We Are the World.
Pélleas: Just looking at Met Futures right now. They’re having LePage direct The Tempest??? mrrr
Zerbinetta: Apparently? I’m not a big Adès fan so I don’t really care too much to be honest. I’m mostly worried about the prominence of Bartlett Sher. I can’t stand Bartlett Sher
Pélleas: I LOVE Thomas Adès
Zerbinetta: I should listen to more Adès. I’ll try. Anna Nicole actually got me into Turnage. But I have to go and eat something before the Sellars show tonight. Is there anything we must say about Walküre that we have not said?
Pélleas: I don’t believe so. Enjoy Sellars & co!
Zerbinetta: Have a great afternoon over there.
Pélleas: I shall. talk to you soon!
Zerbinetta: ciao! (as they say, improbably, in German.)
Pélleas: wtf? silly Germans.

It occurred to me later that we left out an important factor: how will this staging age? In 10 years will the Met still be stuck with a Ring that looks like how Space Invaders looks to us now, only not so cutely retro? In my opinion, storytelling ages better than gadgets, but we’ll see.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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Lulu: First farce, then tragedy

Berg, Lulu (three act version).  Metropolitan Opera, 5/12/10.  Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Marlis Petersen (Lulu), James Morris (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), Anne Sofie von Otter (Gräfin Geschwitz), Gary Lehman (Alwa), Michael Schade (Painter/African Prince), Gwynne Howell (Schigolch), Bradley Garvin (Athlete/Animal Trainer)Production by John Dexter.

I think it is reasonable to say that most audience members, directors, and conductors would identify Lulu as an unremittingly bleak and surreal blast of sex and violence.  What we got at the Met last night was considerably more complex than that, and fascinatingly so.

Marlis Petersen is completely at ease in Berg’s musical world.  She not only sings all of Lulu’s ridiculously demanding music without apparent effort but moves with an amazing sensitivity to the musical gesture, and not just the gestures she is singing.  I would like to think that this is the kind of performance Berg was looking for when he wrote so many picky stage directions in his score.  Petersen’s Lulu feels almost like a choreographic realization of the music. 

Like her cousin Salome, Lulu is usually interpreted today as a passive creation of male desire rather than as an aggressor.  Taking Lulu as a helpless victim of men, as Petersen does, makes us feel a little better about the gender politics of this piece, though I doubt Berg, much less his buddies Kraus and Weininger, would recognize this take on feminine nature.  This approach makes her increased awareness in the second half something of a self-actualization, which again feels better to us now.  (I think Petersen’s approach is entirely the right one for today, and I would probably be very uncomfortable with anything else, but I think we need to acknowledge that this piece has a shitload of gender trouble.)

Fabio Luisi’s conducting continues to be wonderful, finding brilliantly clear textures without ever losing forward motion.  Tempos were on the fast side.  This, combined with more lightness than usual, brought out a surprising amount of black comedy in the score.  There are parts of Lulu that have a great deal of dark humor, but they are usually awkward. I’m never sure if I should laugh when Lulu somewhat offhandedly mentions to Alwa that she was the one who poisoned his mother.  But they felt right here, and successfully tied together surreal and farcical elements of the opera together–the ritualistically echoing lines, the allusions to number opera–with the more expected lustful and violent ones.

This happened dramatically as well.  John Dexter’s production is dully realistic and somewhat worn around the edges–the Met photographer avoided taking many photos that show much of the sets, perhaps understandably.  The sets occupy only a small triangle of space center stage.  It all feels hopelessly tame and frumpy for the goings-on, and sucked some blood from the piece, so to speak, that a more brilliant backdrop might have focused more. A certain amount of depraved zing was lost, but it had an interesting effect.  The stodgy setting, and the ease and fluidity of Petersen’s Lulu contrasted with the stiff and much more static performances of her men (intentional or accident of casting?  I don’t know), all of which pushed us towards a Schnitzler-like satire of bourgeois life.  Sometimes in the schtickier moments it even suggested a middlebrow farce or comedy of manners that happened to involve a lot of violence (“the servant who is intentionally clattering those dishes is having an affair with my wife too? damnation!”).  I think the production intended to be entirely straight, but something about such a resolutely concrete and staid staging of such a louche, surreal piece of work is radical in itself.  To my convoluted mind, at least.

But at the turning point of the opera–that is to say, the Film Music linking the two scenes of Act II–things got a lot darker.  (No film this time, which I missed but am not going to throw a fit over.)  In the plot, this is where Lulu is in prison and then in the hospital, which she identifies as “when she came to know herself,” the semi-self-actualization I mentioned above.  Dexter’s set for Act 3 Scene 1 is considerably less realistic than the ones before it (limited color palette, bigger contrasts).  Everything begins to replay itself in Berg’s recapitulatory and palindromic fashion, only this time despite the ever-increasing ridiculousness of the plot it is in deadly earnest (a few jokes at the expense of some bankers aside).  I wish the final London scene had been a bit grittier and grimier–Jack the Ripper, as you can see above, looks halfway respectable–but it was certainly creepy enough.  Lulu seems aware that she can do little to control her fate.

As for the rest of the singing, it was good!  James Morris redeemed some of his wobbles earlier in the season with an excellently sung though occasionally dramatically blank Dr. Schön–I can understand that Dr. Schön is a bit on the repressed side, though.  Gary Lehman sang Alwa with heroic strength, particularly his impassioned and tireless rendition of the Act 2 Scene 2 duet, a highlight of the score.  Bradley Gauvin was a maniacally animated Athlete and Animal Trainer, the latter more sung than Sprechstimme’d.  The other supporting parts, particularly Gwynne Howell’s gentle Schigolch and Graham Clark’s scary character tenors, were all excellent.

The Countess Geschwitz is the most human character in the opera, to my mind, and Anne Sofie von Otter was touching.  This was my first time hearing her live despite having a few of her CDs and considering myself a big fan.  Her voice is in excellent condition, and she made this sometimes pathetic character gently sympathetic, and her end truly tragic.

I’m glad that I could end my Met season with such an amazing performance.  Three cheers for all involved, but particularly Maestro Luisi.  (Then, for Berg, those three cheers again in retrograde!)

Lest you think this is the nadir of sex and violence in opera, I will be reporting on the New York Philharmonic’s production of Le grand macabre in exactly two weeks.  Perhaps some end-of-season fun before then.

Edited to add p.s. to people led here from Google Finance: I’m guessing that you’ve decided by now that I have nothing to say about the stock LULU.  You are wrong, I do have an opinion.  I think those yoga pants are really overpriced.

Video: There was a video here, but it apparently poses copyright issues.  Removed at the request of the Chicago Lyric Opera, sigh.  Don’t want to get anyone in trouble.

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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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