The Tucker Gala strikes again

The annual Tucker Gala always promises an evening of old-fashioned big singing by people who are opera famous and people who are soon to be opera famous. Usually, it’s also a prime example of the hoary journalistic cliche about opera drama playing out backstage as well as on-. This year was no exception: the event fell on my fall break so I made a trip up to see it, only to discovered that four of the singers had canceled, including Anna Netrebko, the one I wanted to see the most. The remaining program was somewhat underwhelming, honestly.

Tucker Gala, 10/12/2014, Avery Fisher Hall. Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume with a pickup orchestra and the New York Choral Society.

This is a gimmicky gala (remember Bryn Terfel and his beer chugging? that might be my non-singing-related Tucker Gala highlight), so I prefer to cover it in gimmicky fashion. This year I have given everyone a rating in the unit most appropriate to their performance, which I fear has ended up sounding like a demented Twelve Days of Christmas but whatever. Emmanuel Villaume conducted and he did an admirable job with the pacing and balances, all told.

This is, as I said, a really old fashioned event. The singers deployed more variations of Baritone Claw (an outstretched, partially clenched hand gesture most common among baritonal gentlemen) than I have ever seen in one event. There was nothing sung in German or any Slavic language, and it seemingly took only a big loud high note for the audience to erupt. I must admit I was somewhat less enthused, particularly because the printed official program didn’t mention Netrebko. This means she must have cancelled at least a few days ago (according to Barry Tucker, she decided she couldn’t sing the day after Lady Macbething, which seems fair enough), and it was poor form for the Tucker Foundation not to announce this but rather continue to publicize the event with her name attached.

Richard Tucker, Rossini, “La Danza”
We opened with the traditional recording of the Foundation’s namesake, the late tenor Richard Tucker, this year singing what was introduced as an unnamed Neapolitan song but which turned out to be not traditional but rather Rossini. It’s a tarantella-type deal with a refrain consisting primarily of “la la la” and “Mamma mia!” and was more rollicking than most of what followed it.
Rating: Three arancini


Michael Fabiano, Verdi, “Tutto parea sorridere… Si! de’Corsari il fulmine!” from Il corsaro
Fabiano was the winner of this year’s big Tucker Award, and a worthy winner he is. He has a strong, ringing tone with a fast, narrow vibrato. His singing is well-controlled and precise, and yet also intense and exciting. He is definitely going places, probably major places. That being said, he’s a lyric tenor at this point and we’re going to have to wait a bit for him to sing the big stuff. He acts primarily with his chin and is afflicted with, for a tenor, a serious case of Baritone Claw.
Rating: Four “all’armis” with a bonus “Andiam’!”

Pretty Yende, Bellini, “Qui la voce… Vien diletto” from I puritani

Pretty Yende is as charming as her name suggests and her voice is sweet and has a unique color. This wasn’t the best vehicle for her talents. The tiny introduction demands she set a strong mood right away and she didn’t, really. Technically, it wasn’t quite there, with some flatness in the high notes and more elaborate ornamentation in second verse of the cabaletta than she could carry off.
Rating: Two appoggiaturas, plus the Best Dress award

Ildar Abdrazakov, Verdi, “Infelice!… e tuo credevi!” from Ernani
This was authoritative and loud and perfectly fine. I think he’s lacking in charisma, though. He did have some quality Baritone Claw.
Rating: Two “all’armis”

Joseph Calleja, Puccini, “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca
Calleja often lets his beautiful tone do all the work for him and comes across as slightly uninvolved. He’s also pretty light for Cavaradossi. While the opening had a lovely dreamy quality to it, he seemed to lack the heft required for the second half.
Rating: Half a firing squad

Angela Meade, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Massenet, “Esprits de l’air” from Esclarmonde
YOU GUYS THIS PIECE IS BANANANAS! It’s Massenet’s Ride of the Valkyries fused with Lakme’s Bell Song. It is perfect exotic sorceress music. How have I gone to so much opera and not know that this thing exists? It is simultaneously delightful, hilarious, and slightly alarming. I’m not going to describe it any further, I’m just going to have you listen to it in case you have been as deprived as I have.

Thank you, Angela Meade, for singing this with the gusto and high notes such ambitious vocal writing demands, whatever the merits of the enterprise. It wasn’t all audible, but this piece is kind of chaotic. (Meade’s preferred gesture is not The Claw but what might be called The One-Armed Evita.) Jennifer Johnson Cano’s part was smaller but she sounded nice and I wish she had gotten her own solo number to better display her capabilities.
Rating: Ten Valkyries

Ildar Abdrazakov and Ingeborg Gillebo, Mozart, “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni

Gillebo seems like a perfectly good mezzo, but this isn’t exactly a role in which one can judge for star quality. (This number was originally assigned to Isabel Leonard, who cancelled.) Points for choreography.
Rating: One vaguely outstretched hand.

Lucic demonstrates classic Baritone Claw

Zeljko Lucic, Giordano, “Nemico della patria” from Andrea Chénier
Lucic let out a wimpy evil chuckle at the beginning. He just seems like too nice and decent a guy to be able to pull off villainy. The plus side is that I noticed that this aria actually has some good and pretty parts to it, which are not usually given such sensitive treatment. I usually think Giordano is a relatively crap composer, but to Lucic’s credit this made me wonder if I’ve been missing something. Villaume helped him out with the orchestra volume.
Rating: Two-thirds of a tricoleur

Joseph Calleja, Massenet, “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther

At first the answer to the aria’s question seemed to be, “whatever, I’m going back to sleep.” But Calleja seems to be making some effort on the intensity front, and it built up a bit. Unfortunately there was a weird buzz afflicting a few of his forte high notes. No idea what that was.
Rating: Three spring breezes

Michael Fabiano and Joyce El-Khoury, Massenet, “Toi! Vous!” etc from Manon

I believe these two are married, so they’re the Perez-Costello of this year’s Tucker Gala. (Oops, apparently they aren’t married! Sorry, guys!) El-Khoury was new to me; she has a nice rich lyric soprano (sometimes a little harsh under pressure) and is an immediately interesting performer. She injected some welcome energy and intensity into the proceedings and I’d like to see her in a full opera. Fabiano is high octane too, and at times this performance resembled Puccini’s louder and more full-blooded Manon more than Massenet’s. That’s the Tucker Gala for you!
Rating: Four slightly ripped cassocks

Angela Meade, Verdi, “Pace, pace” from La forza del destino
This didn’t appear on the program, not even the updated program. Meade sang with with great control and sensitivity, though at times it could use more color and fullness. While her voice cuts through coloratura, in this kind of rep it can sometimes seem hard-edged and over-bright. Her high C sure is big, though!
Rating: Two intentionally improbable coincidences

Elena Bocharova, Mascagni, “Regina Coeile… Inneggiamo” from Cavalleria rusticana
I’ve never seen this lady live before, I don’t think, but I think there’s a picture of her in the Book of Fachs under “Powerhouse Slavic Mezzo.” She is loud, she is metallic, her dress is from the 70s and is also metallic, and you do not mess with her. You hear her over the whole chorus even when she is singing with them in unison. The New York Choral Society sounded fine in the choral portion of this.
Rating: One Carmen, one Azucena, and an Eboli

Joseph Calleja, Sarazabal, “No peude ser” from La tabernera del puerto

Calleja has a very pretty voice, but I don’t think he has a sexy enough voice for zarzuela. I’m not sure exactly how to define it, but the delivery lacks a certain edge and he’s not quite present in the moment in the way one has to be for this rep to seem exciting. This was fine, but of those present Fabiano would have been better in this number.
Rating: One thing which cannot be
Pretty Yende, Bernstein, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story

OF COURSE. She kept it classy, but I wasn’t entirely sure what this number was doing here other than punning.
Rating: Two wedding veils

Paul Appleby and Alexandra Silber, “Tonight” from West Side Story

I was less sure of what this number was doing here. Since both the singers who were originally going to do this cancelled (Leonard and Stephen Costello), I’m not sure why they called in these two (who are both fine artists themselves) when they could have called in these two to add to the program and gotten them to sing material more suitable for their talents. They seemed mismatched and both less than ideally cast. Silber would be better off with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Appleby in Mozart or Donizetti.
Rating: A fire escape that only goes up one floor

Fabiano, Meade, and co, Donizetti, Act II finale of Lucia di Lammermoor

I’m not sure about starting this right at the beginning of the Sextet. I think a good part of that number’s magic comes from the big lead-up into it (its stillness in contrast to all the chaos which preceded it), and that’s not something I can imagine when just given the sextet as a cold open. But there’s still the chaos after it, so there’s that. Fabiano did most of that, and rage and anger seems to be one of his strong points so that was good. (I would like to hear him sing something a little more gentle at some point but maybe that’s not his style?)
Rating: Three faked letters and one wedding photographer

Can’t win ’em all. I’m going to hear Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass in Philadelphia later this week, and I still haven’t written about the blistering Netrebko Macbeth, so maybe you’ll hear from me again soon.

Photos copyright Dario Acosta/Richard Tucker Foundation.

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The Met’s new Figaro

The Met narrowly dodged a labor dispute to open their season last week with Richard Eyre’s new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. While the irony is inescapable, this production wouldn’t spark a revolution even if it were July 13, 1789. Its heavy, serious visuals belie an upbeat, action-packed, superficial staging with no discernible focus and no evident relationship to the music, and the mostly undistinguished musical performance isn’t enough to redeem it.

Le nozze di Figaro. Metropolitan Opera, 9/27/2014. New production directed by Richard Eyre, sets and costumes by Rob Howell, lights by Paule Constable, choreography by Sara Erde. With Ildar Abrazakov (Figaro), Marlis Petersen (Susanna), Peter Mattei (Count), Amanda Majeski (Countess), Isabel Leonard (Cherubino), Susanne Mentzer (Marcellina), Robert Pomakov (Bartolo), Ying Fang (Barbarina)

The setting is updated to 1930s Spain. Rob Howell’s exotically tinged set is a cluster of cylinders, some of which sit on a turntable (the effect is something like a castle built of paper towel tubes with holes in their sides). (Unfortunately you can’t see it very well in any of the pictures I’ve found–the Met rarely distributes full-stage photos.) The cylinders are a very dark, decoratively carved wood which I believe is intended to represent Moroccan design. It’s a World Market, “unique” alternative to the old production’s Restoration Hardware neutrals. The lights work overtime to make it improbably illuminated, but the effect is still dark and hulking, exacerbated by the dull palette of the costumes. The turntable makes the transition between scenes quite smooth.

“Non più andrai”

But, as Intermezzo said about some other rotating stage, “the only thing that is revolutionary about it is that it turns around.” The design never establishes any connection with the story, and the whole updating seems completely superficial. Why are we in the 1930s, why are we in quasi Morocco, and what does this have to do with anything? One could put the cast in eighteenth-century costumes and the effect of the blocking and characterization would be exactly the same. (Does Team Marcellina start bopping up and down near the end of the Act II finale where they sing “che bel colpo, che bel caso”? Yes, of course they do.) When I was discussing this production with my colleague Lucy, she noted that the sets are strangely bereft of media–newspapers, magazines, books, anything–and indeed, this house doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything happening in the greater world of the 1930s. And for me, absent any plausible dramatic connection, something about the production’s visual world seems profoundly tone deaf to the score it inhabits. Mozart’s language is one of structural clarity, harmonic transparency, and linear development, and the set’s dense surfaces and circular figures don’t work against the score in a productive way, they’re just wrong. It strikes me as a set for a Baroque opera, not Mozart. (I thought of Karol Berger’s study Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow here.)

Like the set, the staging favors the accumulation of detail over narrative precision. There is always something to see, but the “business of the house”–servants bustling around doing their jobs–does not contribute to the whole. Also, Cherubino’s hormones have infected the whole cast with a lust so urgent that Susanna’s pickiness really does seem anomalous. (This sort of “roll in zee hay”-type Figaro was also evident in the last revival of the old production.) This is present from this new production’s opening gesture, in which a naked lady rushes downstage and quickly covers herself up. It doesn’t seem to matter who she is or where she’s coming from–though she appears ashamed–just that there she is, shirtless. Eyre’s production is suffused with casual eroticism (the type that is marketed as “look! opera is sexy!” to a skeptical public), but an unbuttoned quality leaves little space to stage the hierarchical relationships which drive the plot, from Figaro’s relationship with Marcellina to Barbarina and beyond. When Figaro becomes a sex comedy, it loses all its edge. After all, the Count and Susanna’s would-be relationship is obviously not about sex but about power.

“Voi che sapete”

In short, the production is the rush job that we know it was. In the Times, Eyre described himself as choosing from the “opera supermarket” of the cast’s previous experiences, and that recycled, collage approach is very evident. Eyre is competent, and it’s never unwatchable or even as dull as Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni. But the production packs no punch at all, never aspiring to gravity or significance beyond the farce, and that’s profoundly disheartening. A new production is not only a time to replace aging costumes but also to rethink a work’s meaning, to present a sharp and focused point of view, and the latter half of that equation does not seem to have occurred to anyone. (It wasn’t evident in Eyre’s Werther last season either.)

A stellar cast and musical performance could have made this disappointment less acute, but it was pretty middle of the road. James Levine’s conducting was worryingly erratic, sometimes picking beautiful textures from the orchestra, and in the finales building quite nicely, but more often losing all momentum altogether. In all, this was a very slow performance. The tempos seemed to stress out some of the singers, and certainly sapped the dramatic energy. The very enthusiastic continuist attempted to make up for this single (well, double) handedly with torrents of notes in the recit, but that wasn’t the best effect either. (Would it kill the Met to use a fortepiano sometime?)

Count and Susanna, I mean, Countess

While the cast didn’t seem to have many united goals, there were some standouts. The best was Peter Mattei’s Count, a known quantity to me. This was the same interpretation I saw him do in the old production–on a power trip, and dangerous–which isn’t the point of a new production, but it works. His voice is as velvety as ever and his “Contessa perdono” is the most beautiful in the business. Marlis Petersen’s Susanna was also successful. Vocally, she’s a somewhat odd casting choice; she’s spent most of her career in the stratospheric range of Lulu and this sounds like it may be uncomfortably low for her. Sometimes the tone became a bit unfocused and spread. But she is refined and elegant, and a good actress.


Amanda Majeski’s Countess (her debut) tended to stay in the shadows, showing little of the passionate characterization so evident in her Philadelphia Donna Elvira earlier this year. But her singing is interesting and promising: an unusually distinctive sound, cool and reedy with a slightly fluttery vibrato (she reminds me a little of Anne Schwanewilms), very nice up to a slightly underwhelming top. Her “Dove sono” was successfully meditative, but the phrases lacked the last bit of direction–probably because of Levine’s funereal tempo.

Two of the singers had obvious appeal to the audience but I found them puzzling. Ildar Abdrazakov’s Figaro was likeable enough but one-dimensional and generalized. His singing is perfectly reliable and clean (he even sneaked in some ornaments near the end of “Se vuol ballare,” the only cast member who managed as much as a passing tone), but he’s not very complex or magnetic. And I just didn’t get Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino. She was the victim of several of Levine’s stranger conducting decisions, and she stayed with him, but her dry and biting tone is unattractive and her acting was irritatingly over the top, more mugging than portrayal. In the smaller roles, Ying Fang was a smashing Barbarina who sounds like she’s ready for bigger things, Susanne Mentzer was unusually tasteful as Marcellina, and substitute Robert Pomokov was perfectly fine as Bartolo.

This wouldn’t be bad for a third revival, but for opening night it’s unfortunate.

My Beaumarchais beat goes on tomorrow night at Opera Philadelphia’s Barber of Seville. (I last blogged about Figaro and Barber too, oddly enough. Oh well, can’t really beat ’em.)

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.


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Prince Igor at the Met

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s highly anticipated Met debut is a new production of Borodin’s Prince Igor. It seems a safe corner of the repertoire to cache a potentially incendiary production—a rarely-produced, textually unstable work from Russia, a nation that has generally been considered peripheral to the operatic tradition as a whole. In other words, it’s not an opening night production of La traviata at La Scala, where Tcherniakov was, er, not exactly warmly welcomed. In contrast, this Prince Igor is subtle, unflashy, and sometimes as fragmentary and elusive as the opera text it stages. It’s musically strong, if not overwhelming, but in all is quietly radical.

Borodin et al.,
Prince Igor. Met Opera, 2/21/14. Production directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, conducted by Pavel Smelkov with Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor), Mikhail Petrenko (Galitsky), Sergey Semishkur (Vladimir), Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna), Anita Rachvelishvili (Konchakovna), Stefan Kocan (Khan Konchak).

(I can’t promise to cover everything here, my head is currently afflicted by both the flu and the dissertation. About one month from the big deadline! But I’d like to talk about a few things I thought were interesting in this production. Excuse me if I am scattered and/or even less edited than usual.)

The “reconstruction of the authentic Prince Igor” that this production is being called in some Met-publicity parts is a misnomer, because this opera never saw a stage during its composer, Borodin’s, lifetime and a lot of the completion done by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov is necessary just to put the thing on with an orchestra in the pit. This edition claims to include all of Borodin’s music (Rimsky and Glazunov didn’t use all of it), puts in an unusual version of Igor’s last act monologue, interpolates some music from Mlada in a rather stunning ending, and, most drastically, reverses the first two acts so the Polovetsian one, usually number two, comes first and we return to Igor’s court in the second. (This latter move is based on some textual evidence on whose authority I am not qualified to comment.) Anyway, I suggest we stop getting overly hung up on textual cleanliness, particularly when we’re dealing with an opera that’s always going to be messy.

Tcherniakov’s main setting, Igor’s palace, is a big and solid medieval-looking hall. The scenes are interspersed with high resolution black and white films of the soldiers and, eventually, Igor himself getting badly hurt in battle. When he wakes, the rest of the act takes place solely in his head, in the land of the barbarian hoards, he’s landed in a flowery field that seems to be the offspring of Klingsor and Armida. In this fantasy space, he (and his son Vladimir) must decide to, as Flower Maidens and Armidas, etc. always put it, to Submit to Pleasure, here expressed in some stretchy sort of ballet. Pleasure is also personified by Konchakovna, the throaty mezzo daughter of the local Khan, who is rather a break in Fach when it comes to vaguely fairy-like young maidens. Then we return to Igor’s court, where the action is kind of surprisingly conventional and literal, and Igor’s brother-in-law Galitzky is making a bacchanalian mess of things. Finally, at the end, Igor returns and faces a large clean-up job. The ending, to the redemptive strains of Mlada, is beautiful and poetic.

I think the most interesting thing about this production is how it’s Russian but without being totally about Russian history in the way we always expect. By putting the Polovetsian action in Igor’s head rather than reality, he takes the imperialism right out of there. At first I found this disconcerting, because we’re somewhere in the twentieth century and I couldn’t quite figure out which part and dealing with Russia that makes a big difference. But I was asking the wrong question. In the West, Russian opera is assumed to be inevitably extreeeeemly nationally marked. I mean, we think it’s this, basically:

That’s the Polonaise from Stefan Herheim’s production of Onegin and it’s, er, not meant entirely in earnest. But I think there’s something in it anyway. The popular Western belief that Russian opera’s only thematic interest is large-scale Russian history and identity is understandable, because a lot of the works we see here are historical pageants and/or feature tons of identifiably Russian folk material, and there are plenty of historical reasons for that. We just don’t see a lot of productions of Serov’s Judith or Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest in these parts. (I guess The Queen of Spades is something of an exception.)

But Prince Igor isn’t one of those non-nationalist operas! It’s totally, absolutely, completely about Russian history, particularly Russian imperialism. It’s the sabre-rattlingest of all, even! Medieval hero Igor goes forth attempts to go forth and conquer the sexy, emasculating East, just like Russia was doing throughout the nineteenth century. You can’t get much more obvious than that. That’s why I think Tcherniakov’s move away from this is interesting. We see additions of nationalist narratives to stagings all the time—Herheim is an equal opportunity interpolator in this department, he does it to the West as much as the East—but taking them out strikes me as pretty unusual.*

I think it took a Russian to do this, and given the political distastefulness of the opera’s imperial baggage today—this stuff is going on now, still—as well as the over the top nature of the Orientalism given to the Polovetsians, it’s a brilliant move. (You can read Richard Taruskin on this problem, too. I’d be interested to know what he thinks of this staging.) In a broader sense, it gives a symbolic space to a repertory whose drama is usually interpreted in solely external terms, and that’s novel in its own right. Instead of being about imperialism, this production is essentially about male egos. Igor is going off to fight something within himself, and the parallel with Galitsky is clear.

Anyway, back to the larger picture. While I found plenty to chew over in this staging, I have to admit that it was a little less viscerally thrilling than I had hoped for. I had once again been looking for the wrong thing, because Tcherniakov isn’t that kind of director. He’s not flamboyant, and some of this looks like it could be the best work of one Otto Schenkniakov (and a few moments like the not-best work—there’s some stock gesture that looks pretty unfinished). I sometimes wished Tcherniakov had taken a firmer hand with the storytelling. Most of the static moments are inherent in the fragmentary nature of the opera. The scenes don’t quite link up, there’s not too much in the way of ensembles. And that’s still there.

That being said, most of the performances were really good: detailed and integrated in the production’s concept, though the voices weren’t all ideal. Ildar Abdrazakhov is a bit light-voiced for Igor, but his zonked-out monologue in Act 3 has real stature. My favorite of the cast might have been Oksana Dyka, who acted the role of Igor’s wife Yaroslavna with regal presence, sorrow, and, in the end desperation. Her voice is cool, steely, and doesn’t have much variety of tonal color (she struggled a bit in the floaty bits at the beginning of Act 3), but she is very very loud. As Galitsky, Mikhail Petrenko played the villain with enthusiasm, though he also was sometimes underpowered. As Konchakovna, Anita Rachvelishvili sounded dark and leaned into all that snake-charmer type stuff, though playing the figment of someone else’s imagination was not, in this case, the most interesting assignment for her. As Vladimir, Sergey Semishkur sounded excellent and forceful at the top of his voice but gargled lower down. As Khan Konchak, Stefan Kocan was scratchy.

The Met chorus got a lot of the hardest work and sounded terrific. I must admit, however, that I was a little disappointed in Pavel Smelkov’s conducting, and wished I had seen Gianandrea Noseda, who did the premiere. The orchestra was limp at times, and I missed a variety of colors. (I missed Noseda, and missed my original acoustically preferable seat, due to an unfortunate snafu with the New Jersey Transit the other week in which I missed my original date for this performance. For the record, I don’t recommend a few hours spent on a train platform in Metuchen as an acceptable alternative to Prince Igor.)

Do go see this one if you can. It’s on through March 8, with an HD broadcast on March 1.

*I have seen a production of Boris that was set in a modern generic Eastern Bloc state, which worked well—and was a particulalry apt choice for the place where I saw it, former Eastern Bloc city Dresden.

More photos (all copyright Cory Weaver/Met)


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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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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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Anna Bolena at the Met: the dress rehearsal report

This year’s opening night at the Metropolitan Opera will be a new production of Anna Bolena starring Anna Netrebko. I saw the open dress rehearsal today. Like when I saw her sing the role for the first time in Vienna in April, it’s all her show, and it’s a real star turn. But unlike in Vienna, the rest of the cast is solid and David McVicar’s production is a class act. I’m not going to be too critical or specific regarding the singing in a dress rehearsal, but here’s an idea of what we’re getting.

Donizetti, Anna Bolena. Metropolitan Opera final dress rehearsal, 9/22/2011. New production by David McVicar, conducted by Marco Armiliato with Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena), Ekaterina Gubanova (Jane Seymour), Stephen Costello (Percy), Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry VIII), Tamara Mumford (Smeaton).

This is the first time Anna Bolena is being performed at the Met. The story is fairly familiar to English speakers and/or fans of The Tudors: bass Henry VIII is tiring of his soprano queen Anne Boleyn (Wife #2) and is eying her lady-in-waiting mezzo Jane Seymour. Through a combination of bad luck and a stupid tenor ex-boyfriend named Percy, Anne is convicted of adultery and sent to the chopping block, so Jane can become Wife #3.

Back in April I already liked Anna Netrebko’s Anna Bolena quite a bit. Since then she has only grown, keeping the intense sincerity and glamor but adding a great deal more dramatic specificity and complexity. Her Anne Boleyn is a character of real strength, grandeur, and vulnerability at the same time, conflicted between her husband and ex, treacherous lady-in-waiting, and so on. Her voice is as luscious as always, and easily fills the Met without pushing; in this morning rehearsal she took a while to warm up, but improved steadily to a magnificent final scene. In a word, a fierce portrayal. I can’t say I like this opera too much, really, but if you like singing I think it’s worth seeing just for her performance.

The supporting cast is on the whole somewhat preferable to that of Vienna, with Ildar Abdrazakov’s imposing, solidly sung Henry VIII as the standout. He also gets the production’s best costume, in which he looks like that painting of Henry VIII you are seeing in your head (he must be wearing a lot of fabric, he’s not that wide a guy). Indeed, Netrebko showed considerably more chemistry with him than she did with her supposed beloved, Percy, given a rather awkward portrayal by Stephen Costello. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Costello (I first saw him way back in his AVA days, though I never did write the detailed review I promised here) and this time the tone color of his compact tenor reminded me of a more lyric Juan Diego Flórez. Ekaterina Gubanova was a very, very Slavic Giovanna (Jane Seymour), but one with force to spare and some nice musicality as well. Actually, the voices fell into two distinctly national categories: the dark, somewhat thick Slavic ones of Netrebko, Abdrazakov, and Gubanova, and the more clear-toned Americans Costello and Tamara Mumford as Smeaton, whose gorgeous, graceful singing here maybe will finally get her the breakthrough she deserves.

The chorus continues to improve and the orchestra sounded fine. Marco Armiliato was the reliable Kapellmeister he always is. You’re probably not going to go out thinking “wow, that’s some conducting,” but he gets the job done smoothly.

If it hadn’t been for a bloody Smeaton stumbling around in Act 2 and a threatening executioner at the very end, I may never have guessed that the production was by David McVicar. There are almost none of the familiar McVicar clichés: no odd dancing, no naked guys (despite the Tower of London prisoners’ uniform of buttonless shirts and Elizabethan Bermuda shorts), no mini theater. It is about as traditional as it gets. Robert Jones’s sets are minimal, a few pale stone walls, an elegant paned window, and a vaulted ceiling. Jenny Tiramani’s costumes are elaborate and scrupulously period with many pearls and square necklines except for their predominately black and white Pilgrim chic color palette (with some more color towards the end, according to no logic that I could see). Paule Constable’s lighting is painterly and sometimes quite dark.

It’s a well-crafted production; McVicar is a master of directing singers in a way that focuses each dramatic beat to clearly tell the story. We always know what is happening. The movement is musically sensitive, the many choruses are handled with aplomb, and when standing still downstage belting it out is what’s required, that’s what we get. It’s unusually well paced and seemed hours shorter than the limp Vienna production. Overall it’s the best traditional production I’ve seen at the Met since, well, McVicar’s Trovatore (when it was new). But he’s capable of much more perceptive, interesting and creative work than this, and I wish we had gotten some of that instead; I expected more out of him than what we get here. It’s true that it’s not a great libretto and doesn’t present too many opportunities, but still.

One staging cliché McVicar does fall into too often is the old bel canto turn-around. “I was just leaving, but this new, faster accompanimental figure started up and I thought I would dramatically spin around and sing a bit more, OK?” He uses it a lot. It’s effective, but on the twentieth time, not as much.

I can’t imagine “the olds” who hold their conservative sway at the Met finding anything to object to here, there is even use of the stage elevator (which broke down and occasioned a 15-minute delay today) and some Irish wolfhounds led around in the hunting scene. There are a few touches that seem carried over from the Vienna production: the child Elizabeth I again makes a cameo appearance (this time in the first scene rather than the last), and once more Anna fussily pulls her hair up at the very end of the opera to better expose her neck. But it’s that neck that’s the important thing here, or rather the voice that comes out of it. Much of this show is more highly professional than exciting, but Anna is magic.

Anna Bolena opens on September 26 and will be broadcast in HD on October 15. I will add some more photos when I find them.

Photo © Brigitte Lacombe/Met Opera

Video: Anna Netrebko sings “Coppia iniqua” in Vienna in April (NOT the Met’s production!)

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Attila the underdone

Verdi, Attila.  Metropolitan Opera, 2/23/2010.  Conducted by Riccardo Muti and no one really cares about anything else.  No, wait, it was a new production by Pierre Audi with Violeta Urmana (Odabella), Ramon Vargas (Foresto), Giovanni Meoni (Ezio) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila) with sets and costumes by Herzog, de Meuron, and fat-phobic Miuccia Prada.

The story of this show, for good and ill, begins and ends with Riccardo Muti.  The good is that the music had tremendous style and shape, the orchestra sounded fantastic, and the singing was variable but committed.  The bad is that Muti wields his power over directors in ways not necessarily conducive to dramatically exciting productions.  The most important thing seems to be that the singers have an uninterrupted view of Signor Muti at all times.  I got the feeling that the director and designers were very aware of this and were trying to make the restrictions part of their concept, but it backfired a bit.  They might have been aiming for the formalism of Greek tragedy, but the blocking was so sparse it just ended up static and stiff.   Not a successful collaboration, but the production has redeeming qualities, and I enjoyed it.

Purely as looks, I liked a lot of the design.  It’s certainly more visually striking and original than many other endeavors this season (e.g. Carmen, Hoffmann, Tosca).  The prologue begins on an enormous pile of rubble, most of the other scenes are staged against an enormous curtain of greenery.*  But both provide little space for movement.  The costumes are vaguely steampunk post-apocalyptic something, including a scary Marge Simpson/Bride of Frankenstein ‘do for Odabella, but even from my seat around a third of the way back in orchestra (thanks, lady who rescued me from standing room!) only some of the details read–namely the car-wash fringe on Ezio shoulders and the occasional LED lights.  Most of it was too dark.  Also, all the hems were too long, everyone was holding up their skirts and capes all evening.

The blocking was, to put it gently, minimal, clustered in the stage’s limited spaces, all of which coincidentally were near Muti.  There were some efforts to be static with ATTITUDE, most successfully by Urmana, but generally everyone just stared out at the audience at Muti.  A sympathetic interpreter would say that the concept is that the characters are caught in a destroyed (rubble) and wild (forest) world where human connections are impossible, Attila’s army is nothing more than a faceless mass (in fancy t-shirts).  A less sympathetic one would say that this distant approach is a poor fit for a work that has a lot of passionate relationships, both of love and hate.  I’m somewhere in between these two.

OK, now for the music.  The orchestra sounded fantabulous from the first bars.  The strings had an amazing gauzy quality, I was never once conscious of there being oom-pahs, though I know there were, I have never heard a less bombastic and bangy account of early Verdi.  Or most middle Verdi.  It was loud, there was a lot of dramatic contrast, but nothing was underlined solely for flashy effect, it felt right.

The singers similarly showed subtlety and sensitivity–in early Verdi terms that is–though their instruments weren’t ideal.   I liked Violeta Urmana’s Odabella quite a lot despite some obvious problems.  She owned the role and production more than anyone else in the cast, and tore into the music and its considerable quantity of notes.  But her high notes were shrill, her middle voice better but not always opulent, and her chest notes loud enough but not exciting.

Ildar Abdrazakov should have been the star of the show.  The problem is that he wasn’t.  He wasn’t bad, his sound is warm and biggish, he looked scary, but he lacks charisma and star power.  It seemed like Attila’s part is somewhat dull, which I’m sure in the hands of a star bass it isn’t.  The production didn’t help by depriving him of the opportunity to show his power over the troops–the chorus being caught in the set’s underworld.  Unmemorable.

Ramón Vargas is a tenor of great musicality and cruised through lots of the music with a nice legato.  But he lacks the heroic heft needed for this part, he was audible but the voice is just too lyric for an opera this fierce.  I think there is strain, his tone is developing an unfortunate flutter similar to Alagna’s in recent years.  Finally, Giovanni Meoni subbed for Carlos Alvarez as Ezio and did a fine job with a large, round, pleasant sound, though he lacked something in dramatic attitude I can hardly fault a cover for that (and everyone except Urmana needed an attitude injection, really).

As for the booing, I talked to a bunch of people in intermission and afterwards, and their major complaints all seemed to be about the abstract sets.  OPEN YOUR MINDS, people.  As long as we’re all whining that the Big Wall o’ Green Stuff is not a legitimate visualization of a wild forest, we’re never going to get to get to Level 2 of Abstract Regie, at which point we consider that the forest could perhaps not even have trees and still be OK (GASP).  It’s not that there weren’t problems here, but don’t be ridiculous.

To catch up with the news, Prada’s skinny replacements for the fired supersized supers were superfluous, though skinny.  Also, Robby Duiveman is credited as “Associate Costume Designer” and gets a picture and bio in the program, which makes me wonder as to the extent of Prada’s involvement with the production.

There are some memorable scenic effects, most of all some rotating gobos that made the wall o’ green stuff come alive, which made me remember that I missed Lost last night.  Do we know if Sayid is a zombie yet?  No, don’t tell me.  Also, can Daniel Faraday show up wearing Attila’s  kickass spiky helmet?  Because that would be awesome.

Next: Have you seen my Nose?

*The wall serves to remind us to visit the David Rubenstein Atrium down the block, which has a very similar albeit smaller green wall designed by the same dudes–also, have a sandwich there, they’re delicious if a bit pricey.  Unless you’re in danger of being fired by Miuccia Prada, that is.

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