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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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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The enigmas of Khovanshchina at the Met

Khovanshchina is an imposing confusion, a solemn tragedy with the solemnity and stature of Greek tragedy but none of the clarity. Musorgsky’s music is so damn good, and the musical values in this Met revival are so high that you’re hanging on every word, even though they haven’t done anything to sort out the drama, or even really bothered to portray it.

Musorgsky, Khovanshchina, orchestrated by Shostakovich with final scene by Igor Stravinsky. Metropolitan Opera, 3/1/2012. Production by August Everding (revival), conducted by Kirill Petrenko with Anatoli Kotscherga (Ivan Khovansky), George Gagnidze (Shaklovitïy), Olga Borodina (Marfa), Ildar Abdrazakov (Dosifey), Misha Didyk (Andrei Khovansky), Vladimir Galouzine (Golisïn), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Emma).

Khovanshchina was left unfinished upon its composer’s untimely death. The conductor’s note in my recording says this:

Khovanshchina is a massive canvas of many conflicting tragedies, fears, ambitions and hopes for Russia. The additions of Stravinsky and Shostakovich, for all their musical interest, are comments on Russian history… and they result in a political emphasis to the opera which cannot be justified by Musorgsky’s own scores and letters. The very ambiguity of Khovanshchina makes is an opera of great contemporary relevance; to polarise or clarify is, I feel, to reduce its effect, especially in the Russia of today.

The conductor who wrote this was none other than Valery Gergiev, in Gorbachev-era late Soviet Russia. (The Gergiev of today, however, would fit in perfectly among the shady schemers of the opera’s libretto.) The point that Shostakovich’s and Stravinsky’s additions to the incomplete score constitute an ideological reworking is absolutely correct. But it’s impossible to know—and to my mind difficult to believe—that a Khovanshchina finished by Musorgsky would have lacked a strong political message (though evident disagreements between Musorgsky and his librettist Vladimir Stasov may have muddled things).

As it is, Khovanshchina acquired a sort of accidental modernism, a fragmentation and polyvalent quality that is a relic not of intention but of process, of a work left in pieces and given its shape by others. The basic plot deals with the power struggles between Ivan Khovansky, head of the Streltsy militia and his semi-allies the schismatic Old Believers versus the Boyars (aristocrats) versus and the regent Sophia, and the offstage rumblings of Westernization from the teenage future Peter the Great. Khovansky might want to use his unruly militia to overthrow Sophia? Or does the scheming boyar Shaklovitïy just want to get him out of the way? Does the regent not like the diplomat Golisïn anymore? What makes it so confusing is that Stasov condenses many events into a short time period and, disallowed from showing any Romonovs onstage, much happens through proxy. Khovansky falls and the Old Believers immolate at the end, paving the way for Peter the Great, and it’s unclear if the opera thinks this is good for Russia or not.

Unless Russian history is your job or hobby, it’s probably best to forget about trying to follow the plot in close detail. In any case, the Met’s rickety and faded August Everding production doesn’t do anything to make it interesting or compelling. (Tellingly, you can barely see the set in the production photos, found at the bottom of this post.) What you have is the music, the main event in this performance. The score’s “broad canvas” of schemers express themselves with a noble lyricism that is quite different from the rough realism of Boris Godunov, and the music has an austere beauty that is uniquely beautiful, whatever its message.

The Met has assembled a largely Slavic cast for this opera, and an impressive group it is, with many more beautiful and fewer steely or worn voices than your average straight-from-the-Kirov crew. This diversity may be because Valery Gergiev was, for once, not conducting. Instead we had Kirill Petrenko, whose leadership was more refined and layered, less white-hot and loud, befitting this surprisingly elegant score. The orchestra sounded excellent—particularly when I escaped the rear orchestra overhang after the first intermission—and the chorus had its moments of greatness but some wobbly circa-2005 ones as well.

Olga Borodina was the star of the evening as Marfa, an Old Believer/maybe-witch/spurned lover who ties the plot together in various improbable ways. Her mezzo has been headed south over the past few years, adding a deep resonance to her already well-known velvety richness. (One wonders how she will manage Amneris next season.) And while her acting wasn’t much (no one’s was, really), she can tell the story with her voice.

Most of the rest of the roles belong to lower-voiced men. Anatoli Kotscherga must be getting on in years but Russian basses are a durable article and he has both cavernous sound and a good amount of charisma. George Gagnidze’s baritone was impressive in Shakovitïy’s Scene 3 lament for the pains of Russia—even if no one quite knew what he actually wanted to happen to Russia. And Ildar Abdrazakov matched Borodina for vocal warmth and depth as the Old Believer chief Dosifey. In the higher categories, Misha Didyk was ardent and promising as Andrei but this yelping sort of role doesn’t offer many opportunities to really hear the voice’s quality. Former Andrei Vladimir Galouzine sounded very baritonal as Golitsïn but still has the notes and the voice is in good shape. Supporting roles were strong, particularly John Easterlin’s well-characterized Scribe and Wendy Bryn Harmer’s bright-voiced Emma.

The Met is using Shostakovich’s completion, supposedly based on Musorgsky’s original score before the inevitable Rimsky-Korsakov got his hands on it. But Petrenko has edited it a bit in ways to dilute the Peter the Great-positive message imposed by Shostakovich and Rimsky (edits similar to those found in Claudio Abbado’s recording). At the end of Act 2, Petrenko ends with an unresolved chord, leaving out Shostakovich and Rimsky’s Peter-positive postludes (Musorgsky had imagined a big concertante but no one has composed it). More drastically, Petrenko has adopted the final scene completion by Stravinsky, a quiet and ghostly ending as the Old Believers burn up.  Shostakovich had ended with a big reprise of the Dawn prelude hailing the glorious future of Peter the Great’s reforms, while Stravinsky seems to take the dire forecasts of the Old Believers more to heart, a (1872) Boris-like conclusion.

I wish the Met’s production rose to the challenges of the opera as much as the cast did. Even if you agree with Gergiev that political neutrality is the way to go, you could do something, anything to make it visually compelling. From the flat sets to the indifferent direction (including a very boring dance from the inevitable Persian slave girls), it saps a lot of energy and grandeur from this great opera. But the music is fantastic, and considering how rarely the Met ventures into this territory at all (there is not a single Slavic opera on the schedule for all of next season), that’s still something to be thankful for.

For a compelling modern DVD of this opera, check out this Dmitri Tcherniakov production from Munich.

Khovanshchina continues through March 17.

Photos (copyright Ken Howard/Met):

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The Festwochen’s Rigoletto (later to be the Met’s)

I think my favorite part was when Sparafucile handed Rigoletto his business card.

I wrote about Sunday’s premiere of Luc Bondy’s serviceable but mediocre Rigoletto for Bachtrack, and you can read the review here.

This production will be seen at La Scala and at the Met, reportedly in New York during the 2012/13 season. After Luc Bondy’s roaring success with Tosca, it’s something of a surprise he will be back at all (possibly the contract was signed long ago, and the La Scala connection is due to Stéphane Lissner, intendant in Milan and music director of the Festwochen). This production is rather better than the Tosca, and hovers around the weak average level of Met new productions. I would put it on a par with Bartlett Sher’s Hoffmann, a production it somewhat resembles in its dark, vague, slightly surreal ladies-in-underwear circus look. (The first thing that always happens when things get surreal is that women take their clothes off. Funny how that works.)

Basically, this is a traditional Rigoletto with an updated grimy look. George Gagnidze in the title role is the best part of the production, but he is generally working the usual Rigoletto clichés. I tried to find a little more in Bondy’s work in the Bachtrack review above, but I may have been reaching. Its combination of static sections, completely conventional moments, and a few added details already resemble the third or fourth revival of a once-interesting production.

But it’s still got stuff to piss off traditionalists. Let’s take a look at what! Also, more pictures.

(To be fair, the Met audience probably won’t be seeing this production the day after seeing a Stefan Herheim production, like I did. That was not advisable, though unavoidable. More on that one later today.)

The issues I see:
1. The set, though the work of important designer Erich Wonder, is ineffective and looks bargain basement. The first two acts are just some sliding diagonal walls (not really shown in any of the official production photos), the third act a two-level job that looked small on the Theater an der Wien’s stage. Resizing will be tricky: the Met is twice as big or so.

2. There is some doubling going on. First Rigoletto and the Duke wear the same color jackets. Then in Act 3, Maddalena and Gilda are kind of similar, and then Gilda dresses up as the Duke to die for him. This could have gone somewhere, but it didn’t.

3. There are a few non-literalisms. Rigoletto lacks a hump. The blocking in “Bella figlia” shows Gilda approaching the Duke but him not seeing her. I thought this last bit was rather good, actually.

4. Rigoletto kind of looks like the Joker from The Dark Knight. This would make him the second Joker I’ve seen onstage in an opera this season.

5. There are some ridiculous moments. There’s the matter of the ladder I described in the Bachtrack review, which seems like it must be a retort to those who protested the candle elimination in Tosca. There are the business cards. Giovanna sneaking the Duke behind Gilda onto her bed without her noticing him courts unintentional comedy. Gilda is carried off on her bed, not protesting as a bunch of masked men abduct her (really???).

6. There are some big gestures that are visually effective, such as when the mass of the chorus surrounds Monterone. But since we never get a feeling of power or corruption out of this court, the motivation is unclear. The court mostly spends its time gleefully skipping around in circles like Otto Schenk’s Italian peasants. Seriously, the choreography is bad. (Bonus: Karina Sarkissova is credited with “choreographic collaboration”–Sarkissova is the Staatsoper ballet dancer best known for getting fired and then re-hired after an underclothed photoshot in a Viennese men’s mag called, yes, Wiener.)

7. I actually thought the women’s dresses in the first scene were kind of fabulous. The random pantaloons ladies seemed like gratuitous male gaze decoration, though–maybe they could have had a dramaturgical function had Bondy done anything with them at all.

With a Duca and Gilda who can bring more individual personality to their performances, I can see this production being sort of OK. Uh, yay?

More pictures:


Photos © by Ruth Walz

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