Death Clown for Cutie (Cav and Pag at the Met)

 Men are sensitive and easily injured souls, as ten minutes in any internet comment section would tell you. Such is also the gist of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, the august double bill of verismo which presents us twice with the even more august situation of baritones interfering with soprano-tenor relationships and it all getting very bloody. In the Met’s new production, Fabio Luisi makes these high octane scores sound quite classy, but otherwise the two diverge: a dreary, clunky Cav is followed by a fun and punchy Pag. Oh, one other thing in common: for better and for worse, Marcelo Alvarez is the tenor. I shouldn’t be putting that last, which might give you an idea of what is going on here.
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Les Troyens, the Royal Opera House for a horse

At least the horse is good. But the Royal Opera House’s straightforward new production of Les Troyens isn’t nearly as exciting as it should be. The cast and their singing are the best of it, and both Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Maria Westbroek are well worth seeing, but somehow it underwhelms. David McVicar’s production is, for the most part, not bad, but it’s not much more than average, and the whole affair never coheres enough to rise to the occasion–the occasion, in this case, being a vague Olympics tie-in and the eternal “we’re putting on a quasi-all-star uncut Les $#!&ing Troyens, the biggest opera around that isn’t in four parts.”

Berlioz, Les Troyens. Royal Opera House, 7/1/2012. New production directed by David McVicar, sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Moritz Junge, lights by Wolfgang Göbbel, choreography by Andrew George. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cassandre), Fabio Capitanucci (Coroebus), Bryan Hymel (Aeneas), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Dido), Hanna Hipp (Anna), Jin-Min Park (Iopas), Brindley Sherratt (Narbal), Ed Lyon (Hylas).

David McVicar is a smart and slick director, but rarely a profound one and over the past few years his productions seem to be losing more and more intellectual weight. (I think his Faust is legitimately brilliant, and I love his Zauberflöte, both at the ROH, but his more recent Anna Bolena and Trovatore, both at the Met, are adequate at best.) For Troyens he pulls one of his favorite tricks, setting the opera in the time in which it was composed, here around the 1850s. But that’s about the extent of his Konzept, which never creates a compelling reason for why this siege and escape happen. Who are these Trojans, Greeks, Carthaginians, or future Romans? (This exposition is something McVicar achieves with model efficiency in his Giulio Cesare, seen nearly everywhere already and coming to the Met next year). It doesn’t have to be a historically specific definition–though since he sets the piece in a historically specific milieu that might be the most satisfying–but it has to be something dramatically convincing. Here too much is left empty, with familiar-looking nineteenth-century images that do little to define the setting or characters. Nor did the cast seem to be on the same wavelength as this setting, or for that matter with each other.

The Troy acts are far easier to stage and the production works best here. The Trojans have holed up in a vaguely steampunk setting of industrial detritus surrounding a giant metal tower. Why the industrial stuff? I thought momentarily of the broken machines in Heart of Darkness, but that’s all I got. For people suffering under a long siege the Trojans look damn good, the women in beautiful dresses and the men in elaborate uniforms. (While I’m not sure why it was there, much of the design in this half is very striking.) Swooping through all of this is Anna Caterina Antonacci’s old school Cassandra, with the dramatic postures and oversized gesture of, maybe, the 1850s, or a visitor from Planet Sarah Bernhardt. Eyes painted on her hands lets her tell people’s fortunes–based on her reactions, most of them aren’t getting happy endings. If there’s anyone who can pull this kind of thing off it’s Antonacci, and she’s great fun, but Gesamtkunstwerk it’s not.

The set piece effects in Troy work well. While the Horse might seem a challenge I’m pretty sure that as long as you produce something very big and equine it’s going to be a hit, and this one, welded of abandoned weapons and snorting fire, is no exception. It looms large and is very exciting. McVicar does a good job with the ceremonies in this act as well, coming up with something convincingly ritualistic and appropriate to the music. The dancing, however, made me decide that if I ever run an opera company I will ban the use of cartwheels, somersaults, handsprings, back handsprings, backwards somersaults, and any other gymnastics in all of my productions. (The dances in Carthage made me want to expand this ban to all dance entirely–more on that in a second.)

While the Troy acts are all dark excitement and desolation, Dido’s Carthage is a land of plenty and peace and sunniness. The dark metal tower turns into a multi-tiered sandstone city, as well as a model of a tiny city that variously sits on the stage and hovers above it to no clear purpose. Unfortunately McVicar gives into a wide variety of tired Orientalist cliches out of an unironicized Ingres painting (without the nudity, surprisingly enough). Like in many other productions of Troyens, the Carthaginians have built a glorious city but not yet discovered chairs, and prefer to languish on cushions while wearing robes and shiny jewelry. The dances are more frequent and far more annoying, with lousy slinky choreography, some horribly tacky rainbow costumes and, during a typically McVicarian naiad abduction in the Chasse royale, a tree that bursts into flames. Presumably it was struck by lightning, but the effect is that Aeneas and Dido’s love is signaled by a burning bush, Old Testament style.

There is some lazy stagecraft in the last act, with a large portion of Dido’s final scene played extreme downstage in front of a black curtain, presumably as the pyre is set up behind it. While this got Eva-Maria Westbroek right down to the apron, it’s more than a litle anticlimactic and out of character for the rest of the production. The final step, however, is a mistake not of economy but of opulence. Perhaps skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to be “spoiled” but a giant head with a pointing hand enters at the curtain, looking like a man version of the Horse, presumably pointing Italie-wards. Maybe it’s Hannibal. Whatever, it’s embarrassingly like a last-minute cameo from the Terminator (not, strangely enough, pictured in any of the official photos).

McVicar knows how to create engaging Personenregie, but the staging fails to provide a larger vision, and the weirdness in the design and especially the dance unwelcomingly recalls the commodity elements of the grand opera genre. It’s a luxury buffet of what we purportedly want to see, unfortunately all the dishes don’t work together. I must say the lighting is gorgeous, though.

The cast ranged from decent to excellent. Antonio Pappano’s conducting was straightforwardly exciting and quickly paced, but tended to shortchange Berlioz’s quirkiness. I missed the orchestral detail, unusual timbres, and rapid changes of mood of Colin Davis or John Eliot Gardiner. The orchestra sounded absolutely excellent until the end, when the brass began to tire. The chorus sounded super the whole way through, and with this opera’s number of choruses that makes a big difference. The aforementioned Antonacci was surely the highlight, out of place as she was, she can declaim with such conviction and vivid presence that you forget anyone else is onstage. It’s a shame Cassandre is only in the first few hours of this epic–and only Antonacci managed to transmit a sense of the epic.

Antonacci also held a monopoly on gravitas among the cast, the rest of whom were lacking in this department. I like soprano Didos, and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s shimmering tone suits the part. She sounded lovely despite a certain lack of French style. But I wasn’t entirely convinced on a theatrical level. In roles like Sieglinde her down to earth, big sister stage persona is a great asset, but it worked against her here. Her Dido began insecure and worried and only gradually gained in stature (as her voice tired)–but it was too late, in my opinion. This interpretation could have worked had the production fit it, but as it was the second half lacked a strong center.

As Aeneas, Bryan Hymel sang some spectacularly powerful high notes, and his super technique kept his smallish voice even and consistent through the entire long role. But despite really throwing himself into it, both he and his sound are severely lacking in glamour and charisma–the voice is basically monochromatic and plain, particularly in the lower register, and like Westbroek he seems like a guy you’d hang out with rather than an ancient hero. (I have little doubt he sang the role far better than Giordani is likely to do at the Met in December, however.)

The supporting cast was solid, highlighted by Hanna Hipp’s Anna, who was slow to warm up in the duet with Dido but whose rich tone sounded absolutely lovely in the duet with Narbal. Fabio Capitanucci was a stiff but authoritatively-voiced Coroebus, Brindley Sherrett a first-rate Narbal, and Ed Lyon one of the few cast members who sounded French-ish as Hylas.

After around four hours of opera, I peered into the pit to see a cellist flipping to the back of his part, counting the pages remaining. I hate to say it but I could kind of see his point. This was a missed opportunity.

Les Troyens at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Photos copyright Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

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Die Walküre: Stories twice told

I fear writing this much about the Met’s still-unfolding Ring cycle may be having a bad effect on my brain, but I went to Die Walküre on Saturday and here’s what happened. The production is still simple-minded, Bryn Terfel is still the best, Fabio Luisi is still Fabio Luisi, Jonas Kaufmann canceled, and I continue to learn what makes Wagner special by seeing what has been drained out of this production.

Wagner, Die Walküre. Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle 2, 4/28/2012. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Katarina Dalayman (Brünnhilde), Frank van Aken (Siegmund), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Hans-Peter König (Hunding).

At MIT last week, Peter Gelb said that Robert Lepage intended to “tell the story that Wagner wrote” in his Ring. But what story is that? Lepage seemed to describe it as Icelandic myth, but the sources are actually much more diverse than that. Das Rheingold is largely Icelandic, but much of Die Walküre is based on the Völsungsaga, which is Nordic or Central European, and is a source for the Nibelungenlied, the Germanic source for Götterdämmerung. And that’s a vast simplification.

You might say that doesn’t matter: what matters is what Wagner put together. But this collage of myths, and the instability and “live-ness” of oral transmission is imprinted upon the Ring. Again and again, characters tell us, and themselves, and each other, stories–Loge and Wotan in Rheingold, Wotan in Walküre, and Siegfried in Götterdämmerung are a few of the most prominent examples. These long scenes are often considered dramatic dead zones, but they’re very very important. We learn important new information in each one, the listening characters make decisions, and the characters learn things themselves as they narrate (Wotan realizes why he has to let Siegmund die or Siegfried gradually regaining his memory, for example). The Ring’s story is not linear or even a grid but a shifting, perilous web (the Norns).

That’s why I found Lepage’s conception of the machine as a shifting ground of Iceland symbolically intriguing–but seemingly in a very different way than did Lepage himself. For Lepage, the myths are a return to childlike simplicity, “fantasy,” and picturesque images. Inserting film to illustrate a long and potentially dull narrative passage is a “mixture of media,” but the problem is that it flattens the act of narration itself The video doesn’t “echo” or “magnify” the performer as Lepage suggested, it transforms them from being a subjective, live presence to a neutral voiceover narrator illustrating a story given authority by its visualization.

I think this is one reason why the staging feels so spiritually empty. No one has their own story to tell, nor the imperative to speak it. They are just pawns in the service of a mechanical Machine that will very insistently help them relay their material in a homogenous way–here the most egregious incidents being a film during Siegmund’s biography and a giant eye with shifting images helping us get through Wotan’s Act 2 monologue. Lepage’s Ring seeks to be mythic while operating on terms antithetical to myth.

I’m sorry if my review hooks are getting abstract (abstraction being, in Gelb’s mind, a mortal sin), but it’s becoming pretty difficult to come up with new stuff to say about this thing, and since I now have seen the whole cycle I can consider the big picture a bit.

But I guess we should talk about this Walküre. I have to say that this was the first time the prelude reminded me of this. OK, that was a gratuitous comparison but I think there is some truth to it. The orchestra sounded much refreshed after a messy Makropulos the previous night (probably a different crew). Somewhat to my surprise I liked Luisi’s flowing, lyrical approach to the farewell and Magic Fire, which had a welcome luminosity. But along with the quiet first act came an intelligently-paced but lightweight Todesverkündigung.

Lepage doesn’t have too many ideas of how to use the Machine here–it is essentially a glorified projection screen, though it does flip Brünnhilde (a double who was unconvincing even from the Family Circle) upside down onto her mountain at the end. The rest I think I’ve already covered in my previous piece on this staging, when I saw the HD broadcast.

Out of the disappointment of a Jonas Kaufmann cancellation as Siegmund, the Met pulled off a publicity coup by hiring Frank van Aken as a replacement. Van Aken, you see, is soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek (singing Sieglinde)’s husband. He is perfectly qualified, but evidently had very little rehearsal time and had never sung at the Met before. He showed some signs of being a fine artist with good phrasing and diction and a sensitive characterization (and good rapport with his wife), but it soon became apparent that his voice wasn’t backing him up and he was up against more than he could handle. Luisi kept the orchestra down, but he was still difficult to hear, and sounded congested and wobbly when audible, and a few entrances were early. The Todesverkündigung contained a number of near cracks, one, with tragic irony, on “Helden.”

His death fall–I don’t blame him for this, but I have to describe it because it was kind of hilarious–missed the spotlight by a good four feet and he managed to kick his way stage left before croaking. Good instincts, though I missed that heartbreaking father-son recognition moment that was my favorite bit of the HD last season. The only other major blooper was Wotan’s spear, which made a beeline for the pit at one point but stopped rolling just short. While I’m at this I would also like to suggest to Sieglinde that clutching a large fragment of Nothung around the edges of the blade is not the most convincing thing ever.

I remain a great fan of Bryn Terfel’s Wotan. He can sometimes turn blustery–more Bayreuth Bark than bel canto–but he really sings it when required, and has such dramatic concentration and intensity, and such clarity with the words that the narrative sections are unusually transfixing. He seemed quite on the energetic side of things at this performance, and as far as I’m concerned walked off with the show.

Katarina Dalayman replaced Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde in this cycle (no photos were available, these show Voigt). She is not quite commanding onstage, and her high notes are screechy and unreliable. But I found much to appreciate in her performance. Her middle voice is substantial and attractive, and while her German diction isn’t the best she still conveys the meaning of the text. And she has a clear dramatic conception of the role, and filled in the pause button moments of the staging with engaging acting. Brünnhilde’s entrance in the Todesverkündigung (yes I will mention this scene a few more times, it’s my favorite) is one of the worst flubs of the cycle: to incredibly ominous and dramatic music, she walks up some escape stairs stage right. But once she arrived, Dalayman made much of Brünnhilde’s conflicted feelings, eventually composing herself into valkyrie mode. She also really listened to Wotan in the monologues.

Eva-Maria Westbroek is a wonderful Sieglinde, with a sincere, natural and passionate stage presence. She can really fill the theater with her voice, which has a beautiful glow to it (though the highest notes can spread). Hans-Peter König luckily has a role in most of these operas, and his imposing bass is perfect for Hunding, though his rather avuncular presence is not. Stephanie Blythe was again a very loud and not very specific Fricka.

The other surprise highlight of the performance was a fantastic bunch of Valkyries, without a single wobble among them, giving the clearest rendition of the Ride that I’ve heard live. I suspect several of them could be great Brünnhildes. The staging of them sliding down the planks of the Machine, however, verges on the embarrassing. As does, to be honest, this entire cycle in a house that aspires to be a home for art.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that should Kaufmann show up for the final performance I’m going to be seeing this again. As for the rest of Cycle 2, I’m skipping Siegfried (almost the same cast as when I saw it in the fall), but I’ll be at Götterdämmerung on Thursday.

PREVIOUSLY in order of appearance:
HD broadcast, Die Walküre
Siegfried prima
Götterdämmerung prima
Cycle 2 Das Rheingold 

All photos © Ken Howard/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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Anna Nicole: All power to boobs

That’s a quote from the libretto. There’s an aria about them. Boobs, I mean. Big fake ones.

As you may be aware, there’s an opera about the late not-so-merry (or was she?) widow Anna Nicole Smith playing at the Royal Opera House in London at present. I went and saw it, and found it fascinating, brilliant, and infuriating. Herein I will attempt to write about it. Not about how it relates to operatic history or what its media attention means for the world of opera. Because while we might have a publicity circus around this opera, what we’ve got onstage is a circus already.

Mark-Anthony Turnage–Richard Thomas. Anna Nicole. World premiere production, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 26 February 2011 (fourth performance). Production by Richard Jones with sets by Miriam Buether, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood, and choreogrpahy by Aletta Collins. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole), Susan Bickley (Virgie), Gerald Finley (The Lawyer Stern), Alan Oke (J. Howard Marshall II), Peter Hoare (Larry King).

This opera has been all over the news and blogosphere, so describing it feels a little superfluous, but here are the basics.

Anna Nicole in her young, semi-innocent days.

Possibly due to rumored legal threats, the opera presents Anna Nicole Smith’s life in documentary fashion. In Act 1, we see her early life through the reportage of a chorus of TV journalists. As events unfold, Anna Nicole’s family and friends comment on the action. In Act 2, things turn more personal as the reporters morph into sinister silent black figures with cameras for heads, the only allusion to Anna Nicole’s reality TV show. They observe her at every second, eager to know everything for reasons that are never clear. The sole voice of conscience is Anna Nicole’s mother, who occasionally interrupts to protest that “it so didn’t happen like that” and condemn the world to which her daughter has submitted–or that she is squeezing dry. Or both.

The plot, roughly speaking, moves from Anna Nicole’s miserable childhood in rural Texas, early marriage and motherhood, divorce, career change to stripper, career ascent as stripper via fake tits, marriage to an oil billionaire, his death, her decline into helpless drug addiction, dependence on a sleazy lawyer, her son’s death, and finally her own death at 39. We see her at her stripping job, we see her get her new boobs, and meet her decrepit consort, but increasingly, in Act 2, she disappears into her own isolated world.

Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother

This is, more or less, a number opera, though the music flows continuously. The libretto is, like Anna Nicole herself, determinedly obscene. Thomas’s ear for American speech is good enough that the few mistakes stand out (we don’t say “car park”). It also is of a flashiness that, for the first act at least, largely eclipses the sparky, energetic music. It’s not that Turnage lacks a voice, and the jazzy, slightly dissonant, angular sounds are fun. But much of the time the score just doesn’t assert itself. In Act 2 things get more interesting, including a wonderful intermezzo just as the proceedings become more serious and eventually tragic (as Anna Nicole’s son dies, there is, I think, a Kindertotenlieder reference–oh no you didn’t). Anna Nicole delivers something like a lament at the end, before tiredly climbing into her own body bag.

He’s rich.

But the very obscenity is part of the reason why this work, for all its brilliance, is somehow unfulfilling. Simply put, there’s a shortage of dramatic conflict. The excesses of American culture are skewered at every opportunity. I’m OK with this, I realize we’re a big fat target. (Sometimes I wondered if the British audience realized how much of the “satire” was simply truth–y’all know that Wal-Mart really does have an obsession with smiley faces? They didn’t make all that shit up.) The problem is that Anna Nicole the character is set up as too much a product of her culture and not enough in opposition to it. The chorus pronounces her fabulous, but she seems like a passive object of the plot, with few moments of genuine autonomy. This makes her, as a heroine or as an anti-heroine, lacking.

The text’s perspective is relentlessly male, right down to the descriptions of domestic violence and rape. Anna Nicole, proclaimed for all her obvious dumbness to be somehow street smart, never has a real moment of self-insight, something equivalent to Carmen’s fortune-telling, Violetta’s “È strano!” or even Lulu’s instinctual self-perception, and we never get a good look inside her head, empty though it may be. In her brief final monologue, she condemns America as a “dirty whore,” but it’s too little, too late, and too male again. The libretto suggests a few times that she was both victim and master of American culture, manipulator and manipulated. But it’s only an occasional theme, mostly voiced by the poignant but unintegrated character of Anna Nicole’s mother. It seems like this is where the real substance and center of the story should lie.

Cameras are intruding

The libretto’s naughtiness aspires to subversive glee. But is that possible for a production as elaborate and accomplished with as many patriarchal roots as this one? It might have worked in a gay community center’s basement during some Fringe Festival, but on the stage of the Royal Opera House, written and directed by famous and sophisticated men, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of exploitation. Is this another group of the privileged taking advantage of Anna Nicole Smith yet again? The (as yet empty) threat of a lawsuit from self-avowed Anna Nicole babydaddy Larry Birkhead against the Royal Opera House is fitting, and suggests the opera has now become not just a telling of her sad life but itself another strange coda to it.

I suppose that sounds like a severe condemnation, but despite its disappointments I actually enjoyed it a lot. The stagecraft on display is dazzling and full of wit, even if making fun of Texas hicks is something like shooting fish in a barrel. (I’ve never been to Texas, by the way, though I’m from a rural area not too far from Appalachia, so I have the general idea. We make meth jokes too.) It’s not always too original. The opening scene, in which a row of reporters tells us they are going to present the story of Anna Nicole, repeatedly declaiming her name at top volume, is a blatant rip-off of the opening of Sweeney Todd, right down to the staging. Also, those uniform-ish reporters plus a little house on stage, well, Jones’s Bayerische Staatsoper Lohengrin, anybody?

The Lawyer Stern thinks he’s the dad

But as a show a lot of it is brilliant, action-packed, funny (sometimes awkward funny), full of panache, and every bit as tacky as the libretto. The orchestra under Pappano sounded, as far as I could tell, great, and the cast is all top-notch and can’t be faulted for their commitment (or for their English diction). The production is a fast-changing of colorful but minimal settings with garish detail, from a strip club (with acrobatic actual pole dancers) to a Wal-Mart to Anna Nicole’s tacky final living room, and the transitions are seamless and perfectly timed.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Texan accent swam in and out, but as Anna Nicole she gave a star performance, and she was never less than fabulously present–or appropriately out to lunch on Anna Nicole’s distant planet–and she gave the character more heart than the libretto ever did. Vocally, she doesn’t get too many chances to use the full force of her large voice, and I can image more lyric sopranos also succeeding in the role (especially considering the light amplification). But she sounded great; her sound is truly luminous. Gerald Finley’s lawyer–a role rumored to have been rewritten when his guilty verdict in Anna Nicole’s wrongful death giving Anna Nicole drugs was overturned last month (corrected–I was not a devoted follower of Anna Nicole Smith news, sorry)–is unfortunately something of a nothing role and a waste of his talents. Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s aged second husband got better material, sung with verve. Susan Bickley as Virgie, the mother, was almost too poignant in an opera of caricatures.

Something of a disappointment compared to what it might have been, but an interesting one. I hope it gets picked up by another house, with revisions, because it has the polish of something big with the seeds of something far more poignant. Right now, despite the awkward bits, it’s still rampantly entertaining.

There are a few more performances, but it’s quite sold out. Queue early in the morning for day seats.

Video from CBS News–not an option you get with most operas, though it’s not embedding correctly:

Photos copyright by Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House.

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La forza del destino: Showdown at the Staatsoper corral

Preziosilla is onto Carlos’s game.
(Note: picture is a different cast, though same Preziosilla.)
(Photo: Opera Chic)

Of all the caves in the world, you had to walk into mine.  La forza del destino might not be the most outwardly coherent of operas, but Verdi didn’t call it an “opera of ideas” for nothing, and it has an agenda under all that shaggy discursiveness.  Unfortunately David Pountney’s Wiener Staatsoper production, shorn of almost half an hour of music, has the ideas underlined and highlighted and little of the dark chaos.  This messily-staged revival and Philippe Auguin’s conducting went unstoppably forward like the plot’s bullet fired by mistake, and despite four strong singers it all felt rather off.  And the cowboys, well, they were a mistake too.  Giddyap, pardner.

Verdi, La forza del destino.  Production by David Pountney, conducted by Philippe Auguin.  With Eva-Maria Westbroek (Leonora), Fabio Armiliato (Alvaro), Zeljko Lucic (Don Carlos), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Padre Guardiano), Tomasz Konieczny (Fra Melitone), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla)

If you’ve ever met me, I’ve probably told you how you have to read War and Peace.  (Because you do.  It’s wonderful in every way.  It’s my favorite novel.)  La forza del destino is kind of like War and Peace.  Shit happens, some personal and some global-historical, and sometimes there’s little the characters can do to control it.  They wander through things that are larger then themselves.  Some glory in the chaos (Preziosilla) , others try to hide from it (Leonora, eventually Alvaro).  In the opera, you don’t have Tolstoy’s narrative voice telling you all the fateful stuff.  But if you’re at the Staatsoper, you have David Pountney, who’s even more pedantic.

As suggested by the opening video of a butterfly starting an enormous wheel, the production is about coincidences and unintended consequences (I was sadly distracted through the whole overture).  Christianity provides a kind of anchor for these characters adrift, who finally all end up assailing the monastery for help and guidance.  The inn is a place of momentary respite, where many Bibles seem to provide a veneer of security.  The period is sometime during the twentieth century, but only vaguely so (there are still swords for dueling).  As an interpretation it makes sense, but it hits you over the head a few times too often.  Moreover, its extreme minimalism and attendant demurral to create a world outside the principal characters undermine the portrayal of larger forces (of DESTINY) at work.  When we’re suddenly at war in Act 3 the means are not great enough to give us any real atmosphere, just some halfhearted projections.  Destiny’s force never seems adequately cataclysmic.

Crosses, crosses everywhere (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

The sets are simple and OK enough, but the chorus in the inn scene is a somewhat inexplicable band of sexy dancing cowboys, including also sexy dancing cowgirls, and later at war we gets sexy dancing nurse nuns.  I think most opera suffers from an excess of good taste but I’m going to make an exception here.  We have lost any opportunity to establish who these people are in favor of sexy dancing cowgirls.   If the dancing had been fun or meaningful, it would have been alright, but it was just awkwardly bad.  The execution as a whole was so messy that I really can’t say how good or bad the production as originally conceived was.  The buttons in particular were hopelessly off, with some awkward silences and interruptions–the audience had no clue when they should clap and it made the reception feel tepid just because it was unclear.  (The lights, blocking, and conductor should always signal when we should applaud.)

The score suffered from some major cuts, particularly in the choral and minor character material of Act 3.  Not that I really miss Preziosilla’s “Al suon del tamburo” and Trabuco’s aria as such, but they give this opera its texture, its wildly incoherent patchwork of random events and moments that confuses the characters as much as it does me.  Making Forza neater seems to go against its spirit.  And the one major rearrangement–reordering some scenes in Act 3 so the tenor and baritone get a break between their duets and then cutting directly to the Rataplan–destroys the wonderful sequence of the Act 3 finale entirely.

Opening scene (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

Conductor Philippe Auguin favored a fast and loud account of the score that, while sometimes exciting, similarly allowed for few excursions into anything.  We’re getting this sucker done in under three hours or else, he seemed to say (my recording [Levine] is two hours fifty-six minutes total and the intermission was 20-25 minutes).  By the time Leonora pled for pace, pace, I was thinking, you and me both, sister.

The singing was mostly very good, though not transcendental enough to overrule these production and conductor-ly deficiencies.  Fabio Armiliato offered solid and admirable Italian tenoring with good phrasing and intonation, fine coloring and very loud and rich high notes, faulted by a muscley and dry tone at the passaggio and below.  I feel kind of bad for never warming to him, but he failed to grab me somehow.  His acting is generic but he does manage to look impressively Jesus-like in Act 4 in a long white robe with his short beard and longish hair.  I think this was unintentional.  If it wasn’t, I have no idea what it was supposed to signify.

Act 3.  Several of the upper parts of this set were MIA last night.
Photo: Der Standard

Eva-Maria Westbroek has a fabulous soprano, lush and creamy and even right up to the top of the staff.  Above that it gets steelier, but not unpleasantly so (that is to say, her first two “malediziones” were better than the last one).  I would liked to have heard more rhythmic flexibility and Italianate phrasing from her, but Augiun was conducting like he would slow down for no woman or man, so I’m not going to say she couldn’t do it elsewhere.  She did some marvelous acting when onstage alone.  And as for her future role as Anna-Nicole Smith, well, if Anna-Nicole had had better taste she would have wished she could look that good in a pantsuit.

Zeljko Lucic has plenty of volume for Don Carlos and sang his aria with real beauty and musicality, but he seems too fundamentally decent and his voice too lyrically gentle for a villain who kills his own sister.  I would love to hear him as Boccanegra, but am not convinced of his Verdi-villain status.  Tomasz Konieczny, as Melitone, had a metallic edge to his voice that made me think he would have been more suitable, if less opulent.  Ferruccio Furlanetto is not the type to be confined to near-last in a cast list and I’m rather surprised to see him singing such a small role as Padre Guardiano.  It was lovely, and his duet with Westbroek had, along with Lucic’s aria, the best singing of the night, but, still.  It’s minor.  Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla had the misfortune to get totally lost in Auguin’s manical tempo for the Rataplan, but otherwise didn’t sound bad and, hey, she can do both a split and a backbend.

Finally, a Great Moment in Opera Titles: “The bullet in his chest worries me.”  (“La palla che ha nel petto mi spaventa.”)  (Even in Italian it is somewhat dry, but “mi spaventa” is more properly “scares me.”)

Bows, another lousy in-house photo from me:

Next: The Semele prima is tomorrow but I need a break and think I’ll go on Friday.

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