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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You say you want a revolution (Figaro times two)

Like the ending of Don Giovanni, the finale of Le nozze di Figaro restores order and hierarchy. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this peace between master and servants is a tenuous one, and only a few years later the underclass would not be so placated. Today, its title characters’ suggestions of insurrection may be less incendiary than they were at the opera’s premiere but they are instead indexical—well, sometimes, at least. The Ghost of French Revolutions Future occasionally haunted the two Figaros I saw recently*: the McCarter Theatre’s production of Beaumarchais’s play in Princeton and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Mozart’s opera in London.

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Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero at the NY Phil

I went to hear Il prigioniero with Gerald Finley and Patricia Racette as well as some Prokofiev with violinist Lisa Batiashvili at the New York Philharmonic and wrote about it for Bachtrack.

 Alan Gilbert’s last few seasons at the New York Philharmonic have featured an opera in June. While previous efforts have featured elaborate staging, this year’s installment, Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, was performed in concert. For this particular work, which was written for radio broadcast, this seems only appropriate.

You can read the rest here. This was a performance I felt that I should have liked more than I actually did. Perhaps it takes a little more experience to get into Dallapiccola’s world, which I certainly don’t have much experience with. It’s a striking work with some vivid moments but somehow never stopped feeling externalized.

But I am happy the Philharmonic performed it–remember how Maazel was doing concert performances of Tosca a few years ago? I’m not often thrilled by Gilbert’s conducting, but his programming is fascinating (though too many guest conductors are leading only golden oldies). Keep it up.

photo copyright Chris Lee

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The Tucker Gala blasts it out

Only excerpts allowed!

The Tucker Gala again brought a lineup of the Met’s current roster (plus some extras) to Avery Fischer Hall on Sunday in support of grants for young artists as well as in support of having a big party where everyone sings arias really loud. The choices can be unusual.

One moment I am introduced to the wonderful mezzo Jamie Barton, who I had never heard before and found stunning. Then the next moment Dmitri Hvorostovsky is singing Wagner in a sequined tuxedo, and I do not think that he should do either of these things (sing Wagner or wear a sequined tuxedo) outside a gala (or, possibly, anywhere), but it’s still somehow enjoyable. While I found this year’s group less exciting than last year’s, Bryn Terfel and his pockets full of beer bottles can’t always be in town at the right time. This year’s program had the advantage of a large number of singers who I had never heard before, and some of them were really great!

You can watch an edited version of this gala on PBS on December 13 (they might have a hard time dealing with the clap-happy audience). Here’s the rundown.

Galas are full of gimmicks and, in my opinion, best described using them. This one began with a recording of namesake Richard Tucker singing “Che gelida manina.” So for each performance I ask: if Richard Tucker’s disembodied voice is the soundtrack of the opening, what cinematic, TV, or similar habitat would the following live performances best inhabit? This may be particularly apt if you believe that Hollywood is killing opera.

Ailyn Pérez, soprano (Tucker Prize Winner)
Massenet, Cour-la-Reine Scene from Manon
Pérez has a gorgeous light lyric soprano voice that really blossoms at the top, and a winningly charismatic stage presence. Manon is a perfect role for her. In the opening, however, the coloratura tended to show off her control for the sake of showing that she had it, rather than be used for musical-expressive purposes, and the effect was somewhat artificial. Arguably, though, a “willful” approach is appropriate to the character, which is why Manon is hella annoying, and that’s not Ailyn’s fault.
Soundtrack for: Confessions of a Shopaholic 2, in which the protagonist goes to Paris
Gerald Finley, baritone
“Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto” from Rinaldo
A peculiar choice, though I guess Finley doesn’t get frequent chances to show off his coloratura skills, which are indeed outstanding. It’s a very festive and ceremonial-sounding aria (due to the trumpets), which was nice, but I wish he had made some expressive contrast in the B section? Perhaps that is too much to ask in this rather Handel-hostile atmosphere.
Soundtrack for: A montage of overly elaborate wedding preparations in a romantic comedy
Tara Erraught, mezzo
“Una voce poco fa” from Il barbiere di Siviglia
I have enjoyed a number of Erraught’s performances as a member of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s ensemble and it was a pleasure to hear her get a chance to shine here. She got off to a fluttery start but ripped through the coloratura with dexterity and her lyric mezzo really opened up towards the end. She is also very animated and entertaining for a concert performance.
Soundtrack: Baby tigers frolicking in a nature show
Erwin Schrott, bass-baritone
Boito, “Ave Signor” from Mefistofele
I swear the Schrott-ster was wearing the same long leather coat he did as the Devil in Vienna’s disastrous Faust. Unfortunately he did not bring the ukulele this time, and was wearing a shirt. He has sufficient personality and charm to compensate for a certain lack of musical and linguistic specificity, but his voice was maybe not ideally large for this selection.
Soundtrack: something out of the Scary Movie franchise
Jamie Barton, mezzo
Donizetti, “O mon Fernand” from La favorite
Barton has a giant, freely produced mezzo with lots of chest voice drama in the lower reaches, and this was really excitingly sung. She has a good sense of musical timing, varied her big tone’s color nicely, and sounds great up high too. Can she sing Eboli like, really soon?
Soundtrack: Something major happening to a minor character in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie
Giuseppe Filianoti, tenor
Verdi, “Quando le sera al placido” from Luisa Miller
Filianoti is a very expressive and idiomatic singer with a lovely plummy sound in some places but there’s a ripe and wobbly quality in much of it that says all is not, in fact, placido. It’s unfortunate, because there is so much nice stuff there too, and he is very sincere and direct. The top seems most problematic.
Soundtrack: A pastoral scene in a movie about ancient Romans.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone
Wagner, “O du, mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhäuser
Wha???? Yes, Hvorostovsky, Russian Italianate baritone par excellence, sang Wagner. It wasn’t bad, exactly, and this is a number that demands his silky legato approach, but the vowels were peculiar, and the entire effect rather disconcerting. While this is a  contemplative number, something about it here came off heavy and threatening, particularly in the huffing and puffing in the last few minutes. That evening star is coming to get you!
Soundtrack: A montage of war damage on Downton Abbey
Quinn Kelsey, baritone and Ildar Abdrazakov, bass-baritone
Verdi, “Tardo per gli anni e tremolo” from Attila
Two big low voices! Both are fine voices but I can’t say I think this duet is very interesting. Let’s talk about them later, separately.
Soundtrack: The scene from the really questionable grand opera in Phantom of the Opera, given a musical upgrade
Olga Borodina, mezzo
Saint-Saëns, “Ma coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalla
Olga Borodina still has the lushest, richest mezzo in the business, and this was absolutely fantastic. The high note at the end wasn’t a keeper, however.
Soundtrack: A sex scene in a French art film
Marcello Giordani, tenor
Leoncavallo, “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci
Of course. The meatball count was lower than last year, but someone had to do it, and the responsibility fell to the extremely Italian Giordani, whose hand gestures would give away his ethnicity if his voice had not already. This was on the whole stronger than his Friday night Calàf, but this voice sounds worn out, and the sobs were over the top.
Soundtrack: The Godfather, Part IV
Filianoti, Erraught, Barton, Abdrazakhov, and co.
Offenbach (NOT REALLY), Septet from Les Contes d’Hoffmann
It’s a big dramatic piece, but it’s kind of over-the-top and not by Offenbach! Arguably it sounds less ridiculous out of context than it does smushed into Hoffmann, though. But short for this purpose. Why not the infinitely better Antonia ensemble?
Soundtrack: A dramatic rescue scene in a superhero movie
Erwin Schrott
Ziegler, “Rojo Tango”
Who did Schrott sleep with to get two solo numbers? …. Oh. Right. It’s a great idea, but this would have been more fun had he been more audible and had the words not been entirely unknown to me. Also he matched Hvorostovsky in the sequined tux department.
Soundtrack: A chase sequence in a James Bond movie
Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello, tenor
Mascagni, “Suzel, buon di” from L’amico Fritz
Costello has a reedy timbre that while pleasant enough fails to open up on the top notes like his wife Perez’s does (she, on the other hand, doesn’t sound like she has a middle voice is strong enough to sing this kind of thing full time). But for the purposes of this excerpt it was all perfectly lovely, and they probably wouldn’t have sounded lightweight in non-Tucker company–this gala, like most Tuckers, tended towards big and meaty voices.
Soundtrack: Before Noontime, which takes place in Florence. Julie Delpy doesn’t fly out until 18:00, but she’s on Ryanair and has to get to Pisa.
Ildar Abdrazakov, bass-baritone
Rossini, “La calunnia” from Il barbiere di Siviglia
Abdrazakov has an agreeably deep timbre and admirably precise and tasteful musicianship, but he failed to project in the patter sections. Nonetheless, a nice selection.
Soundtrack: The clock is running out on Top Chef!
Quinn Kelsey, baritone
Giordano, “Nemico della patria,” from Andrea Chénier
To be honest by this point in the program I was beginning to check out; it was a long succession of numbers without any break at all. Kelsey has an impressive voice, though, very big and secure.
Soundtrack: ? You say in the comments. Sorry.
Liudmyla Monastyrska, soprano
Verdi, “Vieni, t’affretta” from Macbeth
And then I woke up! Monastyrska cutely brought a crumpled piece of paper to read in the letter opening to this aria, and then launched into the singing with a giant, metallic, very Slavic soprano. While not all the coloratura was the model of exactitude, her voice is big and impressive from top to bottom and this was genuinely thrilling singing. Her upcoming Aida at the Met should be something to hear.
Soundtrack: A serial killer is sharpening his knives in a Korean horror movie
New York Chorale Society
Verdi, “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco
“So we hired this chorus, what should we have them sing?”
“Va, pensiero, what else?”
“But didn’t they sing that last year?”
“No, you just think they did, because you can’t imagine them singing anything else. According to what you wrote, they didn’t get their own number last year. Unless you just left it out.”
“OK, whatever. Shouldn’t this gala have an intermission?”
Soundtrack: A video of last year’s Tucker Gala, which apparently didn’t involve “Va, pensiero,” but might as well have
Borodina and Hvorostovsky
Rimsky-Korsakov, “Zachem ty?” from The Tsar’s Bride
This is a gorgeous, gorgeous duet and they are the perfect people to sing it, and their voices match wonderfully. They tried to make this dramatic, which would probably be more effective for me if I understood a word of the text (the gala still doesn’t provide translations), but it seemed urgent and impassioned and all that. And also the vocal equivalent of shag carpet.
Sountrack: Due to the extreme quantities of Russian-ness involved we have to stick with a national theme here. Let’s say a BBC mini-series with too many Princes whose plot may or may not owe something to 100 pages of War and Peace. 

Giordani and Finley

Bizet, The Duet (you know the one), Pearl Fishers
This was supposed to be the duet from Otello,
but it was changed. I’m not sure if this was a good thing or not, but
I’m sure that Costello or Filianoti could have pulled off this
high tenor part better than Giordani, who sounded strained. I fear
for Les Troyens.
Soundtrack: Ironically pretty music used in a gritty noir  

A moment for the conductor, Patrick Summers, and the orchestra (“Members of the Met Orchestra”)
were some embarrassing issues with wind solos, but no outright
catastrophes. I’m sure they didn’t rehearse this much. Tempos seemed

Like, everyone with Perez as Violetta, Costello as Alfredo, Kelsey as Gérmont, and co.
Verdi, Act II finale from Traviata
This started at Alfredo bursting in on Violetta, which is a tense place to begin but Costello and Perez made it startlingly vivid. She shows signs of being a really great Violetta, and this was her most compelling singing of the evening, with a rare level of dramatic life and connection between music and character. She might be great in the Met’s production should spring’s Violetta, Diana Damrau, be excessively postpartum, no?
Soundtrack: Too dramatic and narrative to be the background of anything. 

Encore: Brindisi from Traviata

The Tucker Gala shows no fear in embracing the predictable. I must admit I was sad that there were no surprise guests, though.

Parting Questions:

  • Were the women all asked to wear black or white gowns? Only Pérez wore a color (and Erraught a very dark muted green). Dull, particularly when some of the men were so out there, fashion-wise.
  • Who is now dying to hear Monastryska as Aida? (I AM.)
  • Did they ask a surprise guest who then didn’t show up on them?
  • Did the winds rehearse at all?
  • Is there a rule about how much of the repertoire has to be Verdi or verismo?
  • What is Tara Erraught doing in NYC? (“Visiting her auntie” would not be the most interesting answer, even if it’s true.)
  • Which parts will make the PBS broadcast? (Hopefully not Pearl Fishers.)
  • Wouldn’t it have been awesome if PBS host Audra McDonald had sung? (She did not. She and Finley could have done Doctor Atomic! That would not have been very Tucker-like, though.)
  • Why didn’t Olga Borodina sing “I Am Easily Assimilated,” as I had helpfully recommended? (Alas. The Dalila was very appreciated, however.)
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Crudel! Perché finora farmi languir così?

Last night’s Figaro at the Met was a really distressing experience, perhaps in part because it has some undeniable assets but they’re overwhelmed by ham-handed acting and lamentable singing. Let’s start with the good: Gerald Finley is an excellent Count, precisely and attractively sung and acted with three dimensions, hardly a power-hungry caricature. In the very difficult aria he balanced rage and frustration and still sounded musical. And David Robertson’s conducting is classy–moderately paced but never slack, with some cool details in the orchestra (though as a fan of historically informed performance I sometimes longed for crisper attack). Coordination, though, was not so great, as you will see.

Jonathan Miller’s production combines a set suggesting the Almavivas aspire to a shabby chic look (with beautiful lighting design) but adds garish, constantly changing costumes (Susanna at one point wears a dress with a green petticoat and pink underskirt reminiscent of a watermelon), to no terribly clear effect. Those costumes blur the social distinctions that are so key to this opera, a problem made far, far worse by the Personenregie of this particular revival. In Figaro, making out with someone is a political act, and as we see at every turn of the plot, not everyone’s desires receive equal opportunity. So having everyone indiscriminately roll around with everyone, as this revival does, totally screws stuff up. Susanna with Cherubino, the Countess with the Count, Susanna and the Countess, almost. Someone seems to have mistaken lying on top of someone for sexiness. Unfortunately in this case the two are mutually exclusive, and no one seems to enjoy much of a connection with anyone else. The effect of the real comic high points is diluted by all this dumb interpolated slapstick.

The evening’s biggest disappointment was Maija Kovalevska’s Countess. I understand the impulse to make the Contessa a Rosina rather than letting her sink into dowdiness, but Kovalevska’s eyelash-batting, simpering, hip-swaying portrayal was a Countess who was always looking on the bright, Carmen-ish side of life, and her perky “Dove sono” failed to have any emotional effect whatsoever. Her steely voice has a kind of unique grainy texture but the basic sound remains kind of ugly, as I’ve thought before. But while her Tatiana basically convinced, she lacks the breath or purity of line to sing Mozart, and even at quick tempos she wasn’t making it through the ends of the phrases in the arias. She lost the orchestra at (many) times, and seemed to be straining for the high notes, which I hadn’t heard from her before. Similarly, Mojca Erdmann’s Susanna always seemed more concerned about the audience looking at her than engaging with the other characters, and her tremulous, shrill voice was harsh on the ears and pitch seemed uncentered. The dramatic weight of a Figaro cast can land on either of these characters, but here neither showed any sincerity.

Cherubino is an odd role choice for Christine Schäfer, a former high coloratura, but I found her oddly convincing. Vocally I miss the depth of a mezzo sound, and Schäfer sounds thin and light. But she gave us an interestingly anxious and awkward Cherubino instead of the impetuous norm, and I wish she had fit this more fully into the production. Ildar Abdrazakov’s burly, not terribly flexible voice also sounded vocally miscast as Figaro, but he did the best he could with surprisingly credible results, and made a likable character with more restraint than most of his colleagues. Supporting roles were OK if not particularly notable with Margaret Lattimore’s Marcellina as the only standout.

In my opinion this is one of the richest of all operas, and it’s sad to see it reduced to such a mundane farce. I’m a Figaro fanatic so I couldn’t stay away but I advise you to think twice about this one.

Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro. Metropolitan Opera, 10/26/12.

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