Don’t Ash, Don’t Tell

You will only see select parts of this from the Family Circle.

All I wanted was to see a production of Guillaume Tell which didn’t become a major news event. But I went yesterday, and the performance ended without Act IV but with me giving interviews to both the Times and the AP.

The interruption and eventual cancellation was caused by, it turns out, an audience member scattering a late friend’s ashes into the orchestra pit. It was, obviously, utterly bizarre and ill-advised. You have to be a complete idiot not to realize that this was going to end with a counter-terrorism unit surrounding the besmirched timpani and an awful lot of your fellow opera fans justifiably angered by your idiocy. But opera fans often pride themselves for their distance from the modern world, and this is such a typical opera fan gesture: ridiculous, morbid, sincere, and anachronistic. So much of opera is about something that is lost, and grief is not reasonable.

So I have only three acts of Guillaume Tell to write about. This is disappointing. I didn’t get to hear the big tenor number or the final chorus, two of the best parts of the opera, and it’s highly unlikely that I will be able to return to the Met for another go at it. So let’s do this now. (Also, I missed Tristan und Isolde due to my Amtrak train running over two hours late. This season has been terrific so far!) But this production has a really great cast!

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Manon Lescaut at the Met

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut has to be one of the least sympathetic leading ladies in opera: insufficiently malevolent for a villain, too shallow and materialistic to be a heroine (her escape from her rich “patron” is foiled because she refuses to leave without her jewels, jewels she is inexplicably slow at gathering up), and too passive to be an interesting mix of the two. That doesn’t mean her story isn’t worth following, though. She’s a perfect storm of many of the nineteenth century’s least appealing ideas about women and Puccini’s score is loaded with enough high octane drama to keep your attention. With the right production and cast, it can work! Unfortunately the Met’s tepid, confusing new production doesn’t pull it off.

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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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Troy again

 Les Troyens is a wonderful, unique, and rare opera (also REALLY BIG), but it’s not one that sells itself. Without an equally strong and unique cast and production–from each of the principals to the chorus and choreography–its five and a half hours can become a bit of a slog. While there are some considerable virtues in the Met’s current revival, it’s only an intermittently satisfying affair.

Berlioz, Les Troyens. Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2013. Production by Francesca Zambello (revival), conducted by Fabio Luisi with Susan Graham (Didon), Deborah Voigt (Cassandre), Marcello Giordani (Énée), way too many more, see here

Francesca Zambello’s production is fairly traditional, with a few Virgilian Easter eggs and non sequitur insertions that pass for vision. Maria Bjørnson’s multi-level George Tsypin-esque set is neither particularly effective nor intrusive, though its textured strips of metal make it resemble a high-end corporate lobby. (The sight lines are bad, too. In Act 2 I couldn’t see the ghost of Hector at all.) The costumes are traditional colorful robes and armor in the Troy portion and in the Carthage half consist of lots of all-white robes and royal purple. Zambello tends towards the heavy-handed and cluttered. Some plot points are underlined and circled, such as Ascagne taking Dido’s ring and Andromache’s screaming, while other developments seem quite badly timed, such as Dido and Aeneas finding love at the beginning of the Hunt kind of robs the rest of the act of its point.

After having seen three different productions of this opera live (this one, David McVicar’s in London,* and David Pountney’s in Berlin), I have come to three conclusions (besides that Troy is far, far easier to effectively stage than Carthage):

    1.    The Carthaginians don’t have chairs. They lounge on cushions.
    2.    The Carthaginians always look like the members of a New Age cult. White robes, little in the way of gender differentiation (apparently a side effect of having a queen?).
    3.    The dancing is usually awful, and goes on for far too long.

I actually liked Doug Varone’s choreography of the Chasse royal a lot, where he has a chance to build the drama to some developmental music, and wished Dido and Aeneas hadn’t been providing visual distraction as well as premature macking. But the insertion of dance at other points, such as Iopas’s song and the jazz hand-filled Laocöon ensemble, is irritating, and the long dance sections of Acts 3 and 4 outstay their welcome. Overall, at least as revived here it’s a generic, uninspired production–in Carthage considerably less egregious than David McVicar’s recent effort but also far less visually arresting in Troy. I must say that this production’s moderately-sized, literal horse is far less impressive than both McVicar’s steampunk fire-snorter and the Pountney production’s take, where giant feet kicked at the Trojans from overhead.

The problem with a lackluster Troyens is that you become acutely aware of how uneven the piece is. It’s not that much of it’s bad (I think it’s 98% genius, and the 2% is mostly the Dance of the Nubian Slave Girls), but it doesn’t fit together without consistent energy and vision. In this performance, I was not convinced that we really needed two peripheral beatific tenor arias, plus, well, I adore the whiny soldiers in Act 5. They’re my second favorite whiny soldier duo in opera, beat only by Nero’s guard in Poppea. The glance into their lives, plus the respite of Hylas’s music, are what gives the opera its epic quality. But if they don’t have some spirit you just want to get on with it.

next up: Dance of the Campaign Pollsters

The best thing about Fabio Luisi’s conducting is that it kept everything moving. I liked his work in the quieter music best, such as the lovely Didon-Anna duets, where he found a nice gentle flow. And the processions and choruses had a good solid momentum, with only a few coordination issues early on. The chorus, by the way, might be the real star of Les Troyens, and while I found the Met chorus somewhat less impressive than the ROH’s last summer, it was still a strong showing. Where I thought Luisi was less satisfying was in the quirky stuff that makes Berlioz so special, stuff like the ostinatos, the irregular phrases, the sudden turns. Stuff like this moment. Luisi has a tendency to make it all sound like early Beethoven, and pleasantly bland early Beethoven at that. More lurching energy, more neuroticism was needed.

Besides the chorus, Susan Graham is the star of this production. Her Didon is absolutely beautifully sung and acted, with more depth and intensity than I remember in her performance on the Châtelet DVD. She expertly balances musical grace with the text, giving her Didon dignity and stature, convincingly regal but also human. Her voice is bright but also slightly grainy, a perfect size for this role and by the end she becomes a real tragedienne at the end. Her only issue is high notes: the big and prominent B flat in “Chers Tyriens” simply entirely failed to come out both times, leading to a somewhat anticlimactic end. I’m guessing there isn’t a lot of time with Octavian in her future (which is a shame, because she is otherwise outstanding there!).

I wonder if Marcello Giordani took the widespread rumors of his imminent replacement personally. (How could you not?) For the first three acts he seemed to be giving it his all, and managed a little better than I expected. His voice is aging, the high notes extraordinarily loud but not very pretty, the disconnected lower range hollow-sounding and weak. It was in Act 4 where the problems really began to show, with a can belto “Nuit d’ivresse” that completely drowned out Graham’s more appropriately nuanced efforts, and his Act 5 “Inutiles regrets” were indeed regrettable, involving something resembling a high C and some B flats but also a lot of vaguely rhythmic, somewhat pitched shouting towards the end. His acting is acceptable but not exactly dashing or charismatic. I would not at all be surprised if he were sent packing to, uh, Italie before the HD broadcast (“he’s not Italian! he’s Sicilian!” -my relatives, my family comes from southern Italy). The rumored replacement is Bryan Hymel, who, with indisputable competence if not terribly much beauty, sang the role earlier in London this year.

Deborah Voigt’s wan, poorly sung Cassandre made me long for London’s brilliant Anna Caterina Antonacci. Voigt was always a Chrysothemis, someone who plants themselves in front of the conductor and makes a glorious sound. Cassandre is a role that requires the charisma and madness of a mystic, which Voigt has never possessed. What’s more, the sound is gone, the voice small and sour, a shadow of her past. She vocalizes through the music with rather unpleasant tone and unclear French, rarely looking at her Coroebus. Very disappointing.

The army of supporting cast was strong, for the most part. Karen Cargill’s warm, rich low mezzo as Anna was a highlight, and she made an excellent contrast to Graham. Paul Appleby sang Hylas with a sweet tenor and honest, simple phrasing. In contrast Eric Cutler was a Iopas with a large but uneven voice and fussy phrasing (with a fussy staging from Zambello), somewhat miscast and unaware that less is sometimes more. Julie Boulianne sounded clear as Ascagne with some strange flirty direction. Stephen Gaertner stood in for Dwayne Croft as Chorèbe and showed a strong, full dark baritone. The two most prominent basses, Kwangchoul Youn (long time, no see!) as Narbal and Richard Bernstein as Panthée, were both excellent.

There’s great stuff in this production, but it requires patient waiting through considerable quantities of not so great stuff to get to all of it. Still, recommended under the general “come on, it’s Troyens” rule.

Les Troyens continues through December with an HD broadcast on January 5.

*Like the set of David McVicar’s London production, this Met one (which
came first) also features, in the Carthage set, a raked circular thing center stage
that has little buildings on it (these look more like building blocks
while McV’s were very clearly a city). Unfortunately I have no pictures
of the NYC incarnation; here is the London one:

Coincidence? Errrrr.

Photos copyright Met.

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When you needa Aida

“He’s alive!” “You’re toast.”

Nearly every year the Met schedule contains innumerable performances of Aida. This being a difficult-to-cast opera that sells without big names, the singing is often not that great (Latonia Moore’s Aida last season was an excellent exception, though I heard her only on the radio). This year the Egyptology made the HD broadcast schedule, and for two performances in the run–the broadcast and the one before it–the cast aligned into Liudmyla Monastyrska, Roberto Alagna, and Olga Borodina, what you could possibly call an all-star Aida. Unfortunately it ended up being a little too cautious to be exciting.

Verdi, Aida. Metropolitan Opera, 12/12/12. Production by Sonja Frisell, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Liudmyla Monastyrska (Aida), Roberto Alagna (Radames), Olga Borodina (Amneris), George Gagnidze (Amonasro), Stefan Kocan (Ramfis).

I went to see this last Wednesday (sorry not to write earlier… shit happens), but the HD cameras were already everywhere (they record the performance before as a backup). This was, overall, a strangely bloodless and small-scale performance, and I seriously think the singers were playing to the scale of the movie screen’s close-ups, not the big theater. From my spot in the orchestra standing room during Act 1, the acting was strangely muted and blank. OK, so this is often a park and bark opera, but lots of important and dramatic plot happens and the visuals of the production are so Cleopatra (the Liz Taylor one) that you hope for some big melodramatic acting too. Then a gentleman who was not feeling well left at the first intermission and gave me his seat in row H center, which is ridiculously close to the action, and while I could see many more details in the acting and in some ways appreciated its subtlety, I still found it underplayed. (The sound is a lot better there than in standing room, too.)

Of course another factor was Mr. Smooth, Fabio Luisi, on the podium. On the one hand, he doesn’t go for cheesy bombast and always keeps things moving swiftly. On the other an Aida that sounds more like Mozart is, outside a few of the more ethereal moments, not very exciting. This was, as always, professionally done, with Monastyrska particularly tuned in to his work. (Some of the other singers, not so much, which I will get to shortly.) The orchestra was fine, as was the chorus, but it was all a little too held back to be fully involving.

Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska has risen to the big leagues almost overnight and it’s easy to tell why. She’s got the killer combination of tremendous volume, solid technique, and decent musicality, and made real music out of a part that is often struggled through. The voice is more notable for its volume than its beauty, but she varies the color more than many in her fach. What she lacks, so far, is a personality as big as her voice, and a sense that she is making the role her own. Still, she was rock-solid, untiring, and the favorite note of Aida-fanciers, the high C in “O patria mia,” was impeccable.

This was Roberto Alagna’s first Radamès of this run, though he has sung it at the Met before. Some lack of security was evident between him and Luisi.  I was glad that his voice was more controlled than the last time I heard him, and while the tone is duller than in years past he is still a solid singer. But Radamès is not a happy role for him, and he has to undersing and strategize to get through the evening. I am belatedly convinced that the loggionisti in Milan were correct, even if they were not very polite. He didn’t give that notorious “Celeste Aida” ending a shot, instead singing a lower variation (preceding it with some unwelcome falsetto), and he was also strangely restrained in the acting department, his usual exuberance tamed. We can be thankful for small favors–he seems to have lightened up on the bronzer since I last saw him in this, and also covered up his chest this time. (The Met should be ashamed of the audible Velcro on that armor, though. Audible Velcro is the Scourge of Opera.)

Olga Borodina got a fair amount of grief for this Amneris from other audience members, and I agree that like Alagna she is past her strongest years. The high notes are perilous and the high Bs in the Judgement Scene were cut off abruptly. But I found a great deal to enjoy in her singing; the rest of her voice has incredible depth and richness. And she was more engaged and animated than some of her colleagues. Finally, bug-eyed baritone George Gagnidze provided his usual reliable villainous snarling. The guy is not exactly a star–there’s not a lot of vocal glamor there–but damn if he doesn’t always get the job done in fine style. Supporting roles were on the underpowered side.

The production, well, on the bright side, I’m glad they’re now using way less blackface than they did on this old video of it. And Alexei Ratmansky’s dances, an addition from a season or two ago, are a good cut above average (though the execution left something to be desired). But overall the thing looks like a costume party in the Met Museum where everyone is doing the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Civil War reenactment. It’s too familiar and clichéd to be more than mundane, and not over the top enough to be fun. Time for a new production here, I think. Should the budget not allow, I have an idea. Inclined to agree with Edward Said that this opera represents the authority of Europe’s vision of Egypt of the 1860s, I suggest finding a Verdi lookalike, putting a pith helmet on his head, give him a sheaf of manuscript paper and a shovel and set him loose on this production. For once it would kind of make sense.

Photo copyright Met (no name attached).

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David Alden hosts a Ballo in maschera at the Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballo continues through December.

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

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Götterdämmerung: Zu End’ ewiges Wissen, and other endings

Why do we still want to see and hear the Ring? It’s not because of the dwarfs, the spells, the sword, or the gold. The Ring includes an unfair quantity of the greatest music ever written, and it’s expressing something a lot more profound and ambiguous than the novelty of seeing a dude in a bear suit. We want the Ring because in it we can hear love and rage and hope and evil amplified into the most glorious, mysterious sound. This is something Robert Lepage never seems to have grasped in his Met Ring Cycle.

To quote the First Norn, “ein wüstes Gesicht wirrt mir wüthend den Sinn.” Götterdämmerung is the weakest link of Lepage’s cycle. If there was redemption in this final performance of the Met’s Cycle 2, it was through the talent and hard work of the performers.

Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Met Opera Ring Cycle 2, 5/3/2012. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Katarina Dalayman (Brünnhilde), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Iain Paterson (Gunther), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune), Hans-Peter König (Hagen), Karen Cargill (Waltraute), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), Maria Radner (First Norn), Elizabeth Bishop (Second Norn), Heidi Melton (Third Norn).

If you take the Ring literally, it’s pretty silly. So much of it’s supernatural, the causality of some events can be muddled (the Ring ends up back in the Rhine, so why does the Götterdämmerung proceed apace anyway?), there are a few weird plot holes (dead Siegfried shooing Hagen away from the Ring), and all sorts of other ridiculousnesses. Of course you can “solve” these problems–but in the larger picture to take the Ring so literally is idiotic. It’s myth, and it functions on a symbolic level and speaks to us in terms more ambiguous and timeless than the specific events that are being portrayed.

Robert Lepage, for all his talk of “fantasy,” has given us the expected, the swords and breastplates that confine the story to a picturesque storybook. The Machine dwarfs the singers and imposes its overwhelmingly simplistic scene-setting upon every moment. The characters, the emotion, and music that carries them all seems like an afterthought, because we have mountains to look at here, dammit. The Machine does not open up possibilities but preclude them, it threatens to make bland and tame all it touches.

Lepage reaches new heights of vacuity in each act of this Götterdämmerung. First the Norns stand still as the Machine wiggles. Then Brünnhilde incomprehensibly enters from the opposite side of the stage as Siegfried and equally incomprehensibly wields Nothung. This leads to nonsensical character work in Act 1 (Hagen and Gunther and Gutrune are just one big happy family… wait, what?), and then Hagen delivers his entire monologue sitting still in a chair. I suppose he could be sitting still with menace. But really, he’s not.

That seems minor compared to the problems of Act 2. It begins with the Hagen-Alberich scene in which Hagen remains still behind a big shield that looks like a speaker’s podium. We had a last-minute replacement Alberich, Richard Paul Fink (not pictured), and I was sure he was just wandering onstage in his street clothes. It turns out he was in fact wearing the costume–minus, of course, Eric Owens’s hair (pictured above on the left) (which on Fink would have been a disaster far greater than Frank van Aken sporting Jonas Kaufmann’s hair last weekend was). It’s just not the most inspired costume design, suggesting Alberich has spent his spare time away from the world of the rest of the production, perhaps becoming a new music conductor.

Later, the conspiracy trio involves a pair of angled chairs (seen above) that look like a setup for William Berger to ask Jay Hunter Morris a few more questions about working in roller skate rental, and the act concludes with a small crowd of vassals waving teeny streamers and creating a traffic jam near the undersized stage left exit to the flurry of smash-bang triumphant-scary music (sorry, Wagnerian German inspires such collocations).

But the end of the opera remains the worst thing (skipping over the scene where the Rhinemaidens slide down the wall, climb back up it, and slide down again ad infinitum*). Siegfried’s pyre flickers meekly and slowly trundles upstage, Brünnhilde gets on Grane (props to Katarina Dalayman for managing this by herself with relative grace, an improvement over being lifted into place as seen earlier) and follows, and the machine rotates to enact a transformation to the Rhine. Hagen briefly runs after the Rhinemaidens, ending in a freeze-frame with his arm stretched back as if poised to grab them, but he doesn’t do so and they hold this for several seconds and then all slowly descend on an elevator. We get a lot of visible stagehands apparently helping the statues of the gods to gently crumble, as if centuries are passing seen through a time-lapse camera. An inglorious end to an infuriating project.

It may have been promoted as the Wagner Event of the Century (and I can’t blame the Met for doing this, they have to sell their tickets), but it’s best treated as a revival of a 20-year old production to which each singer brings their own strengths and weaknesses. When I managed to forget the hulking mass of the Machine and concentrate on the performers, I enjoyed it the most. This means to give up hopes of a unified dramatic conception, but there has never been one here. Forget Lepage, take and leave each individual performance for what it offers. (This is not a Gesamtkunstwerk.)

Katarina Dalayman was a noble Brünnhilde of considerable dramatic stature and power. Her voice remains shrill and uncontrolled at the top, but her presence and vivid way with the music had grown considerably since Walküre. Her raw emotion was the only thing worth watching in the big betrothal scene, and her Immolation had a generosity and large-scale expression that almost made the silliness around her recede. I wish I could understand her German better, but I feel like she knows what she’s saying even if her diction isn’t that great.

Jay Hunter Morris had a more successful evening than at the premiere. He got off to a scratchy start in the Prologue, but warmed up to his customary bright and clean singing (though skipping the C). He never has the power to really fill the house, but paced himself extremely well and was still sounding fresh through the torturous death scene. He has a likeable, friendly presence, and Siegfried is hardly a complex character, but I could use more acting-wise in the final scene. (If one can ever ask for that without being very nasty. It’s a hard thing to sing, to say the least.) I hope he can next work on this interpretation somewhere in Europe where he’ll be singing in a smaller house and get some good direction.

Karen Cargill had big shoes to fill replacing Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, but if she isn’t Meier’s rival in textual insight (who is?) her giant chocolately voice was a considerable pleasure. Iain Paterson is an interesting Gunther, aware and frustrated but resigned to his status as a beta male, and a fine singer of this rather thankless role. Hans-Peter König’s Hagen is an enigma: astonishingly well sung with an enormous, black bass, but so utterly lacking in menace that he might as well be Baron Ochs. In the remaining roles, Wendy Bryn Harmer kept up her duties in the Help! Help! fach, Heidi Melton’s Third Norn is the great Wagner soprano of the future, and the Rhinemaidens were less shrill and more evenly balanced than before. The chorus was excellent.

I’ve run out of words to describe Fabio Luisi’s conducting. It’s competent, fluent, perfectly sufficient and at most points falls a bit short of being profound. The brass didn’t have the best night, but I’ve heard far worse.

The Ring is so special, even a mediocre Götterdämmerung has the power to leave you sort of a mess at the end, but still I can’t picture myself going to see this production again in a hurry. It’s too distancing, too boring, too ugly. With a major stroke of casting genius–Christian Thielemann or Nina Stemme come to mind–we’d talk, but when it comes to next year’s line-up I don’t think I’ll be alone in giving it a miss.

I went back to see the first thing I wrote about this Ring. It was this:

I am a Robert Lepage skeptic. He seems more interested in creating
images than narrative, and more taken with gadgets than characters.  And
a Ring Cycle without an overarching sense of narrative would be
dire.  This will be an important moment for the Met, and let’s hope that
it turns out well.  As if that weren’t enough, add a complicated set, a
very fragile conductor, and a dangerous number of unreliable and/or
role-debuting singers and you have… enormous potential for backstage

To which I say this.

I’m putting the Wagner back on the shelf for now but not for long. I’ll be returning to the Ring in July for the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Cycle B.

*Also in this stretch: Gunther washes Siegfried’s blood in the Rhine, turning a large part of the Machine red. This reminded me of the end of Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal in reverse, but I really doubt Lepage has seen it.

PREVIOUSLY in order of appearance:
HD broadcast, Die Walküre
Siegfried prima
Götterdämmerung prima
Cycle 2 Das Rheingold 
Cycle 2 Die Walküre
A few more photos, all © Ken Howard/Met:


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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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The Met’s Traviata: She’s fallen and she can’t get up

The Met’s first revival of Willy Decker’s production of La traviata brought us the fragile charms of Natalie Dessay in the title role. Did she conquer the sofa that made Anna Netrebko (in Salzburg) a star?

Verdi, La Traviata. Met, 4/18/2012. Production by Willy Decker (revival), conducted by Fabio Luisi with Natalie Dessay (Violetta), Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Gérmont).

Since I was away last season, this was my first time seeing the production live, though I knew it from the famous Netrebko/Villazón Salzburg DVD. I like it very much and I can’t help but cheer to see Met people lined up around the block to see a production where a man in a dress and a mask suggestively rubs the minute hand of a giant clock, you know? It warms my heart. Also, it is just a really, really good staging.

Decker’s is a stylized, bleakly unsentimental interpretation, pared-down and extreme. It’s the opposite of the old Zeffirelli production, whose heavy upholstery tended to dampen any excessive displays of emotion and absorb even the most charismatic of singers. Here, Violetta is starkly isolated, her red dress the sole splotch of color among the anonymous hoards of men who pursue her. Maybe the giant clock counting down Violetta’s days and the hovering figure of Dr. Grenvil (AKA Death) aren’t subtle, but the imagery is striking and beautiful. (I’m not going to summarize it in any more detail because its virtues are, by this point, well known.) The staging requires real presence in this title role, and yet rewards a star Violetta in a way that Zeffirelli’s production never did.

Natalie Dessay was getting over something and by all accounts had a better outing last night than she did at previous performances during this run. She got off to a rough start, sounding tentative and having trouble staying with the inevitable Fabio Luisi and the orchestra. By “È strano,” she had stabilized. But her voice is still a thin and silvery thread, limited in its scope and color. Her only real variation is a breathy quality, which gets old quickly. Floaty high notes made the letter aria her best moment; the coloratura of “Sempre libera” was fast but not overly accurate. But in the ensembles and everyone’s favorite outburst, “Amami, Alfredo,” she came up well short in volume. (She did sing the high E-flat at the end of Act 1, and it was far too long and loud. I like this interpolation at times, but the fermata was way over the top.) She got to the ends of the phrases but rarely sounded more than wispy, and sometimes rhythm and phrasing, and even intonation, seemed slapdash.

Her acting was similar in tone, a damaged Violetta only barely making it through rather than the physically weak but psychically joyous interpretation Netrebko brought to this production. Netrebko’s voice spoke to Violetta’s strength of spirit, Dessay’s voice speaks to the decay of her body.

Maybe this is appropriate for Violetta. It’s a special and poignant kind of pathos when the failings of the singer become the failings of the character. (Begin theoretical digression:) Regular readers of Critical Inquiry may remember Carolyn Abbate’s article on analyzing opera in performance that used a similar incident as an example of a highly charged performative moment, namely the cracktacular Ben Heppner’s struggles to get through the Prize Song. His heroism to stand up in front of an audience while his vocal apparatus repeatedly failed him, according to this argument, sort of put the Helden- in Heldentenor.* Traviata is a little different: Violetta’s frailty and Dessay’s own weakness are complementary while Walther isn’t supposed to be struggling. But I don’t buy this argument. Poor Heps’s first few cracks might have been something special, but if they kept coming eventually a crack is just a crack, not a transformative performative act. An opera can have these moments, but it also has a narrative arc that extends through the evening. (End theoretical digression.) And a Violetta whose sole affect is fragility is too one-sided an interpretation to convince me. It’s a rich, complex character, and I found Dessay not varied enough.

Matthew Polenzani sang Alfredo wonderfully, with inventive phrasing and consistent beauty of tone. But acting-wise he’s awkward. This could work for the character (I’ve seen it done intentionally by others), but it’s a problem of this sort of production: it was originally designed for the more shameless and impetuous Rolando Villazón. Polenzani is obliged to follow this mode, and he wasn’t selling it.  As Papa Gérmont, Dmitri Hvorostovsky radiated stolid gravitas. Vocally, he has the range of about a fourth in his voice that sounds just spectacular, from around an A to a D at the top of the staff. Below that sounds growly and above it forced, but a lot of “Di Provenza” sits right in that velvety sweet spot and he has got the legato and it sounded wonderful. Unfortunately the duet with Violetta is a little lower, and didn’t sound as good.

Fabio Luisi conducted a self-indulgently slow prelude (as an old teacher of mine said, “you’re supposed to make them cry, not point out to them that they’re supposed to be crying”) but mostly kept the orchestra in line for Dessay, entertained Polenzani’s unusual staccato approach to the beginning of “De’ mei bollenti spiriti,” and was elsewhere not too sugary. The orchestra didn’t have any problems, and the chorus sounded fine with only a few mild coordination hiccups. The stage direction of said chorus is not quite as tight as it could be, but I’ve seen far worse.

Despite this less than completely convincing assumption of the title role, I’m still very glad I finally got to see this first-class production. Somehow I doubt the Met will ever be able to originate a production of a warhorse opera that is this of this quality, but I’m glad that it made it to New York eventually.

 La traviata continues through May 2.

*Yes, this is the same article I cited in both my Spring for Music entries. It’s going to be for me what Seamus is to Gail Collins.

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Manon at the Met marche sur quelques chemins

The Met’s new Anna Netrebko vehicle production of Manon stands out in the desert of the Met as a rare beacon of competence. Laurent Pelly’s production isn’t great–the tone is uneven and it generally fails to cohere–but most of it is smoothly executed and there’s some interesting stuff in there. Above all, it has Anna Netrebko as Manon, and her epic soprano that overwhelms everything around her.

Massenet, Manon. Metropolitan Opera, 3/31/12. New production by Laurent Pelly with sets by Chantal Thomas and costumes by Pelly, lights by Joël Adam. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Anna Netrebko (Manon), Piotr Beczala (Des Grieux), Paulo Szot (Lescaut), David Pittsinger (Count des Grieux), Christophe Mortagne (Guillot).

First, if you can take a second and vote for me in the second round of the Arts Blogger Challenge, I would appreciate it. If I were to win I would be able to bring you more writing funded by my oodles of prize money.

Pelly sets the opera in the Belle Époque, around the time of its composition. The central idea is compelling: male voyeurism, and Manon alternately controlling and being controlled by the male society she fascinates. Netrebko’s Manon might start off young, but she’s both hot to trot and fully self-conscious from the beginning. On every step of her journey from country girl to living-in-sin Bohemian to kept woman, she knows what she wants and how she’s going to get it–it’s just the society that enjoys her so much has to condemn her in the end to satisfy their nineteenth-century morality. For Netrebko, this is a great interpretation, fitting her modern, forthright sexuality as well as her lustrous, big voice. Playing Manon as a wispy innocent would be both dramatically and vocally futile for her.

The production’s execution of this concept, though, leaves something to be desired. Chantal Thomas’s plain, cardboard-y sets, with some off-kilter angles and exaggerated perspective, look unfinished and incongruously small in the vast space of the Met’s stage. (This production was first seen in the much smaller Royal Opera House in London.) There’s an obsession with multiple levels and ramps, and everything is white and looks kind of the same until we reach the casino. The costumes are more elaborate though the color palette is limited.

Pelly doesn’t seem to have entirely decided about where he wants to take the piece, mixing cute jokes with some pretty heavy duty stuff and thus undermining both. While his attention to personal interaction is admirable, the characterization is not entirely consistent, and realism and surrealism mix uneasily. Tiny houses and freeze frames in the chorus recall Pelly’s cutesy Fille du régiment, but it’s hard to think that the crowds of men spying on Manon at every turn are a joke.

In the Saint-Sulpice scene, Des Grieux’s bed appears to be located in the nave of the church, which makes sense if you think about it as abstract, but the sets so far had been more literal about their sense of place. And when Manon rips off his cassock, it can’t help but be over-the-top silly. Her action–seducing a priest-in-training after his sermon–is itself ridiculously melodramatic, but the ironic tone sits awkwardly with the sweet staging of their romance in the first half of the opera.

When Pelly really goes for the abuse heaped on fallen women, I’m still not sure if I can take him seriously. A ballet with intently-watching Jockey Club men seems like a knock-off of the Giselle parody in David McVicar’s Faust (actually, in some ways this whole production is a bargain basement version of that one). There’s an air of half-assedness around it. It’s a shame, because it could have worked had Pelly taken a few more chances.

But even if it rarely lifts off, there’s a lot to offer here, first and foremost Netrebko. Most people would say she’s well past the Massenet-Manon fach and should be singing Puccini’s more full-throated Manon instead, but she brings a lot to Massenet as well. Namely, she fills (and occasionally crashes through) the phrases with such a gorgeous, thick, sexy sound that they seem to glow, at least some of the time. She’s most at home in the legato of the entrance aria and the table farewell, while the ornate faux-eighteenth century writing and Ds in the Cours la Reine scene aren’t easy for her (the first D worked pretty well but the second not as much). Overall it’s a beautifully full-blooded performance, with vitality and passion to spare.

Piotr Beczala tends to indicate more than inhabit his roles, but his Des Grieux was the most convincing acting I’ve seen from him, with straightforward naturalism that generally eludes him. Unfortunately all was not well vocally for his Italianate lyric tenor. He’s a very musical singer and some phrases were gorgeous, but he struggled with intonation the entire evening, often singing slightly sharp. Louder phrases, including much of “Ah! fuyez..” were pushed and lacked resonance.

The supporting roles were fine, with Paulo Szot making the most of his likeability as Lescaut. His voice is on the small side but he sounds good enough in this role. Christophe Mortagne was funny as Guillot, though I’m not sure if funny was quite what was required all the time. David Pittsinger is always a welcome presence at the Met and was an excellent Count (his entrance in the Hôtel de Transylvanie scene makes you remember how very much like Traviata large portions of this opera are).

Fabio Luisi’s conducting was intelligent and well-coordinated and on the more deliberate side of things. I wish it had been flashier. Actually, that’s what I would have liked of the whole production.

If you haven’t read La Cieca’s piece on Netrebko’s characterization of Manon, I recommend you do. I have one thing I’d add, though. While there is no single Manon, we can say with some confidence what the 19th-century Manon would have been, and we can say what audiences today expect as well. Based on the reaction, the latter is something much daintier than Netrebko. I think that for rhetorical purposes La Cieca understates the difficulty of contravening this tradition. The score is all we have, but people are attached to their usual ways of thinking about a piece, and you need to be stronger and more consistent than Pelly is here to convince them otherwise.

Still, the production is worth seeing, if somewhat disappointing.

Manon plays through April and she will suffer her inevitable HD broadcast on April 7.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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