Běda, Rusalka, běda (Poor Rusalka)

I’ve been on a blogcation for reasons related to work, as well as some concern that the world will not in fact exist in a few weeks so why am I writing about Bellini? Also, the opportunity to avoid both Gounod and Bartlett Sher at the same time was a proposition too efficient to resist. But as longtime readers may know, if a new production of Rusalka isn’t going to get me back, nothing is going to get me back. I’m back! Alas, this new Met Rusalka is not good.

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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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Don Carlo in Philadelphia

Don Carlo is a big and ambitious opera for Opera Philadelphia, even in the four act version. I’m happy to report that with this production the risk has paid off: the cast, led by Eric Owens and Leah Crocetto, does the best singing I’ve heard from Opera Philadelphia in years. Tim Albery’s generic period production is rather bland, but it’s well-acted and appropriately dark. In a city which has long been dismissed as “not an opera town,” this is a production any regional company would be proud to perform.

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Nina Stemme comes out ahead in Carnegie Hall’s Salome

I went to Salome at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra and Nina Stemme and Eric Owens and Franz Welser-Möst and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

“When I looked at you, I heard secret
music,” says Salome in her monologue to the severed head of John the
Baptist. Richard Strauss’s opera trades in the unseeable and the
unknowable—from the range of metaphors applied to the moon to the nearly
impossible staging of a ten-minute striptease performed by a dramatic
soprano—which makes it unusually well suited to concert presentation.
Strauss’s high-octane, atmospheric music can seem all the more lurid and
mysterious when its subjective visualization is left to the imagination.
When the stage seems to agree with Herodias and show that the moon is,
in fact, merely the moon, things are rather less interesting than the
swirl of images in the orchestra.

In Thursday night’s presentation by the Cleveland Orchestra at
Carnegie Hall, these depths were reached only sporadically, and the
performance served largely as a showcase for the stunning performance of
Nina Stemme in the title role.

You can read the whole thing here. Stemme was magnificent and Welser-Möst disappointing. Do all the conductors now consider swiftness and textual transparency the absolute highest virtue (HIP birds coming home to roost?)? Or have I just overdosed on Fabio Luisi? I’d kind of like to hear someone try something dense and thick for a change. Stemme could certainly handle it. Most of my recent Salomes have been lyrics with ambition and I found a real dramatic voice refreshing, particularly Stemme, who is loud but at the same time still so nuanced. I am greatly looking forward to hearing her sing Brünnhilde this summer.

photo © Roger Mastroianni

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Das Rheingold at the Met: Verflucht sei dieser Ring

It was the best of Lepage, it was the worst of Lepage. Last night’s Das Rheingold, opening the Met’s second Ring cycle, featured a good deal of impressive singing, intermittently exciting conducting, and a production that is the least consistent and yet in some ways also most impressive of his Ring.

Wagner, Das Rheingold. Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle 2, 4/26/12. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Eric Owens (Alberich), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Adam Klein (Loge), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt), Hans-Peter König (Fafner), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Patricia Bardon (Erda).


Das Rheingold largely consists of lengthy spans of chatty exposition broken up by major set pieces. Dramatic action and character development are sparser than in the rest of the Ring. Robert Lepage’s theatrical language in this cycle mostly rests on the power of striking, static images, so perhaps it is the installment most suited to him. In addition, this was the first of the operas to be staged, and one gets the feeling that the Machine was built with many of these moments in mind. The big tricks in Rheingold--the descent to Nibelheim, the Rainbow Bridge, the giant snake, the arrival of the giants–feature much more creative use of the set than any of the glorified projection screen of later installments. Some of the effects seem like a lot of effort for relatively little payoff, such as the giant hammock Freia is dumped into to be covered with gold. But I can understand why the Met has been constantly promoting the cycle with the image of the machine forming a descending staircase down to Nibelheim, because it’s the most exciting image of the cycle so far.

But Lepage has real trouble getting in and out of these effects. He starts with the Rhinemaidens up vertically against the wall of the set, swimming like mermaids. So far so good, but to get this he has confined them to mermaid tails, and for the rest of the performance they struggle to move around the set at the speed the music seems to demand, their arms or rather legs literally tied. Elsewhere the work is clumsy: when the Tarnhelm reacquired its laundry basket mid-scene, my first thought was, oh, the toad is going to go in there. And so it did. It’s lazy stagecraft. And the staging of the talkier parts is hopelessly static. In extended solo passages, a spotlight tends to warm up and the other characters are cast into darkness, never listening or reacting (we don’t see Alberich as the Rhinemaidens salute the gold, nor do we see Wotan while Loge goes on). This performance was seemingly free of technical glitches, though the groans and wheezes of the Machine still disturbed throughout.

Lepage has had the nerve to blame the audience for his cycle’s lack of success–apparently we care too much about the music. But he should be reading the score so we don’t have to, and there’s little evidence he has. When the words stop and the orchestra begins to prattle for a bit, as often happens in Wagner, the staging seems to hit a pause button, and no one does anything until they start singing words again. Why not look at a score, then, you aren’t going to be missing anything.

Singing-wise this was an impressive evening. My favorite thing about these performances so far has been Bryn Terfel’s Wotan. He has both the vocal weight and the dramatic understanding to tell the story with his voice alone–which is what he needs to do because the visuals aren’t helping any. (His costume, along with those of all the other gods and to be honest everybody, is heinous plastic-looking armor and 1980’s hair band coiffure. This production recalls the Parton rule: it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.)

Just to note, subtleties may have escaped me because I was standing in the Family Circle.

Stephanie Blythe made mighty sounds as Fricka, but I wish she did more with the words. Eric Owens’s Alberich was somewhere in between Terfel and Blythe in terms of textual specificity, and his powerful bass-baritone makes one of the biggest impressions as Alberich. Hyphen-Ated Namig duo Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig as Fafner and Fasolt were also monumental, this performance more or less belonged to those on the lower sector of the vocal ranges. Cover Adam Klein went on as Loge (the originally-scheduled and really great Stefan Margita was ill). I’m not sure if Klein’s thick tenor is ideally suited to this role, and he lacked an element of humor, but it was an accurate, confident, and consistent performance.

The Rhinemaidens were fine, particularly Tamara Mumford’s Flosshilde, and Wendy Bryn Harmer did her usual duty as Freia. Like her previous turns as Gutrune, and as Emma in Khovanshchina, it mostly requires crying “Help! Help!” on bright Fs and Gs, and that she can do. When she’s ready to leave the Help Help Fach she’ll be a good Sieglinde someday. I’m not sure if Erda is quite right for Patricia Bardon, whose tangy mezzo (didn’t sound contralto-ish, at least) was a little lightweight.

Fabio Luisi’s conducting, I don’t know. Like the staging, sometimes he would get things cooking, the Wotan-Alberich stuff at the beginning of Scene 4 in particular was great. But for me he’s short on perspective and depth. I never felt like some things are closer while others are further away, nor that the music is a kaleidoscope whose images shift suddenly as it is turned. Luisi is sleek, elegant, and very linear. And ultimately kind of boring and lacking in personality. The orchestra played cleanly (only a few minor bobbles in the Vorspiel), and the brass had a welcome edge, though the strings seemed hesitant to do anything too enthusiastic.

In this production you can see glimmers of what Lepage’s Ring was promised to be: a spectacular literalist staging on an elaborate unit set. But outside a few spectacles the storytelling is so lazily and badly executed that it fails to make us care what those images portray. Does Lepage even care?

Cycle 2’s Die Walküre is on Saturday.
Photos © Ken Howard/Met.

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